Democrats on Tuesday introduced a wide-ranging measure to, as the New York Times reports, “strengthen checks on the presidency that they hope will compare to the overhauls that followed the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War.” The bill, called the Protecting Our Democracy Act, tracks the many offenses of the prior administration as it seeks to shore up norms that Republicans shredded. The Times reports, “The legislation would make it harder for presidents to offer or bestow pardons in situations that raise suspicion of corruption, refuse to respond to oversight subpoenas, spend or secretly freeze funds contrary to congressional appropriations, and fire inspectors general or retaliate against whistleblowers, among many other changes.”
The bill also contains much-needed rules on emoluments; reforms for triggering the presidential transition (which the Trump administration delayed as President Donald Trump and his cronies plotted to steal the election); disclosure requirements for campaign contacts with foreign governments; limits on political appointees contacts with the Justice Department; time-limits for presidential “emergency” powers; and enhanced penalties for violating the Hatch Act.
“The bill includes reforms we urgently need to address the problem that Arthur Schlesinger called the ‘imperial presidency’ in 1973, a problem that reached its peak with Trump but that predates Trump and persists after his departure from Washington,” Walter Shaub, former head of the Office of Government Ethics tells me. “It’s no exaggeration to say that America needs these reforms if we want to keep this nation a free republic.”
Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the Project On Government Oversight, made clear in a written statement: “Donald Trump’s presidency exposed significant cracks in the system our founders designed to serve as a check against an imperial president. The weaknesses in our systems of checks and balances and anti-corruption laws were already there — the last administration just made them more visible to the broader public.” Hempowicz added: “If we want to prevent future abuses of power by the executive branch, we cannot ignore the systemic issues the Trump administration exposed.”
Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan group involved in constructing the bill, put out an enthusiastic endorsement of the bill: “This critical legislation would prevent future presidents from undermining our democratic institutions and contains policy ideas that both parties have endorsed.”
Likewise, the Committee for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which brought numerous claims and lawsuits against the prior administration and former president for abuse of power and corruption, echoed that sentiment: “Now more than ever, it is critical that Congress take the necessary steps toward safeguarding our democracy against politicians who weaponize their positions to increase their power or enrich themselves at the expense of our democracy,” the group said in a written statement. “The Protecting Our Democracy Act would curb abuses of power by presidents of both parties, strengthen Congress’s ability to fulfill its constitutional role as a check on executive branch overreach, and secure our elections from foreign influence.”
Noah Bookbinder, CREW’s president, told me: “I think it’s very strong and absolutely essential to pass quickly to ensure checks and balances and a working democracy. CREW and a number of other organizations have worked closely with members of Congress on a lot of these reforms and will be working hard to try to make sure they are passed.”
We will see whether Republicans, who used to support executive restraint, will support tough reforms when a Democrat is in the White House, or instead will resist installing guardrails to corral a president unwilling to abide by long-standing norms — as though in anticipation of a Republican president’s return. The expectation that Republicans will try to nix many of the proposals simply because the disgraced former president would not like them (or because some Trump-lite figure would bristle at restraints), says everything that voters need to know about a broken party that decided long ago that democratic norms and institutional integrity are for suckers.