The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats lay out a plan to halt the drift toward authoritarianism

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) listen as Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) speaks during a news conference on Sept. 23. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)

House Democrats introduced a multipronged reform bill Wednesday dubbed the “Protect Democracy Act.” It might as well have been titled the “Let’s Never Go Through This Again Act.”

As detailed in an opinion piece for The Post, a group of Democratic House committee chairs compare their effort to the reforms put in place following the Watergate scandal. Since President Trump’s offenses — from his violation of the emoluments clause to his snubbing of congressional subpoenas to his weaponization of the Justice Department — are arguably wider in scope than Richard Nixon’s, their reforms need to be far-ranging. They include protection for whistleblowers, restrictions on the firing of inspectors general, transparency in presidential pardons, disclosure of contacts between the White House and Justice Department and a requirement that “all campaigns report offers of help from foreign governments and foreign political parties to law enforcement … [as well as] unequivocal language in statute that campaigns cannot accept foreign help or information for political advantage, including opposition research.”

These are reforms aimed at controlling an abusive executive. Other tasks will fall on the new administration, such as reconsidering guidelines preventing prosecution of a president (at least clarifying that a president can be indicted); a strict code of ethics that demands lawyers abide by professional obligations and report others’ ethical violations; and, of course, investigating any misconduct by Attorney General William P. Barr or other Justice Department staffers. I strongly recommend a two-week period of amnesty in which every Justice Department employee can bring forth evidence of wrongdoing, after which any and all wrongdoers will be investigated and held accountable.

Liberals and conservatives share basic common values, but leaders like Donald Trump use fear to exploit their differences for political gain. (Video: The Washington Post)

There is a broader agenda as well, which aims to secure the democratic norms and institutions Republicans have trashed. In some cases, the institutions must change, such as by scrapping lifetime tenure for the Supreme Court. In other cases, institutions under attack — such as the free press — have to be protected (e.g., a federal shield act, preventing prosecution of journalists under the Espionage Act). Most fundamentally, our election system must be reformed so that election results actually reflect popular will. Whether that means awarding a state’s electoral votes on the basis of the national popular vote or providing for automatic registration and voting at home in all states, the days of gaming the system to prevent certain groups from voting must end.

The nonpartisan organization Protect Democracy, which has been working on many of the ideas included in the reform package, praised the proposals: “The reforms would help make clear that no president is above the law or the Constitution, as well as create new guardrails in areas where President Trump abused his power — and where his successors could imitate him without Congress putting up new barriers,” it said in a written statement.

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The goal to pass the legislation before Election Day might be optimistic, but it is not too much to expect that there could be bipartisan support for measures next year, especially if Republicans suffer a drubbing in November. As Protect Democracy said in its statement, “Many of the package’s proposals, including reform of the National Emergencies Act and congressional subpoena enforcement, have been driven by Republicans or been key Republican concerns in the past. While President Trump’s tenure in office has made the need for reforms more acute, many of these reforms stem in part from prior instances of presidents of both parties abusing their power, coinciding with a decades-long trend of the executive branch claiming power at the expense of Congress.”

The House effort is a reminder that Trump, Trumpism and the degradation of democracy can end with a powerful vote in November to throw out those responsible for our drift toward authoritarianism. Voters can do this, making Trump a bizarre detour from our task of making this a more perfect union. If they do not, there is no guarantee our democracy will survive four more years of Trump and his Republican enablers. No pressure.

Read more:

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Paul Waldman: Trump is counting on the Supreme Court to help him steal the election