Can our government save itself from itself? This is the question at the heart of the Protecting Our Democracy Act reintroduced in Congress this week by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.). While there’s no perfect answer to preventing the abuse of power, the bill would do more to achieve that goal than any act in the past half-century.
The package puts together proposals united by a theme: limiting executive power. The contents should have more bipartisan appeal now than when they initially appeared ahead of the 2020 election, because they will no longer be framed as restraining President Donald Trump. Now, they’re about reining in any occupant of the Oval Office who seeks to exploit his position for personal or political gain. Notably, a number of the dozen areas of reform have previously been championed by Republicans: curbs on an administration’s ability to declare national emergencies as a means of co-opting the power that conveys, for example, and beefed-up protections for whistleblowers and inspectors general.
Reclaiming the authority of the legislative branch should be a congressional priority, regardless of party. The bill revitalizes the institution as a whole rather than empowering whichever party happens to be in control. This explains the reluctance of President Biden to sign on wholesale to the act as written. Some provisions have been relatively uncontroversial: the prohibition of self-pardons; the enforcement of the emoluments clause, which aims to prevent a president from profiting off his office; and the improvement of the Hatch Act, which limits government employees from engaging in political activities, among them. Yet others, including restrictions on firing inspectors general without cause, enhancements of Congress’s ability to enforce subpoenas and requirements for disclosures about White House communications with the Justice Department, have provoked pushback. Negotiations have led to the thoughtful narrowing of some of these proposals; in other areas, Mr. Schiff has stood firm.
The White House seems to agree with the bigger-picture intent of this big bill: Any bad-faith occupant of the Oval Office has too much ability today to take advantage of his role and of the voters who installed him in it. Mr. Biden should make his overall support clear — even if he quibbles with some of the finer points, which are likely to be finessed in committee anyway. His team should also do what it can to shepherd the bill through Congress. The House, where the legislation has already attracted more than 100 co-sponsors, will be easier. The Senate, where the legislation is likely to be broken up into component parts, might pose a challenge. But there’s good reason for enough Republicans to support at least the ideas that originated with them.
The Protecting Our Democracy Act is an opportunity for Mr. Biden to prove he will keep his promise to restore good government. Better yet, he can make it part of his legacy to make it more likely that his successors do not undo his work.