Building Legislative Guardrails
President Trump has gone to remarkable lengths to try to put himself above the law and corrupt the federal government, smashing the guardrails that were established after Watergate to prevent presidents from abusing their power. While he’s done so, Congress has continued its decades-long trend of abdicating its authority to the executive branch, threatening our system of checks and balances.
It’s time for Congress to restore and put up new guardrails to prevent presidents from acting corruptly. The Constitution — in two places — requires the president to act in good faith to enforce the laws. Legislation is necessary to affirm and codify the Constitution’s limitations on the use of executive power, to create enforcement mechanisms, and to increase transparency in areas where separation of powers concerns are most acute.
Protect Democracy supports a wide-ranging set of reforms to accomplish these goals and has proposed ideas and supported existing ones to get the job done, such as in Protect Democracy’s legislative blueprint Roadmap for Renewal. We believe that Congress must:
- Ensure that presidents don’t abuse their authority to declare national emergencies;
- Reaffirm that the president is not above the law;
- Prohibit abuse of the appointments process and ensure accountability for acting officials;
- Deter abuse of the pardon power;
- Prevent improper political interference with the fair administration of justice;
- Reaffirm its power of the purse;
- Prohibit abuse of official powers to interfere in an election.
Additionally, Congress must pass reforms to prevent obstruction of legitimate congressional oversight; protect inspectors general and whistleblowers to enable oversight and transparency; prevent the White House from creating false records and spreading disinformation; and ensure that White House staff serve the public, not the president’s personal interests.
Some of these proposals are included in the Protecting Our Democracy Act, a reform package released by House Democratic leadership on September 23, 2020. Many of its proposals have been introduced or backed by Republicans, which supports the idea that this should be a bipartisan effort — since strengthening the Article I branch is in both parties’ interests, and reform will help restore the power of presidents of either party to its proper constitutional place.
Congress Takes Major First Step Toward Building Post-Trump Legislative Guardrails
The introduction of the Protecting Our Democracy Act marks the start of long-term work to prevent future presidential abuses of power and strengthen checks and balances
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congress took a meaningful step on Wednesday, September 23rd toward preventing future presidents — Republican, Democratic, or otherwise — from abusing their power.
House Democrats unveiled the Protecting Our Democracy Act, a sweeping package of reforms that would help restore checks and balances between Congress and the White House and begin to repair the damage that President Trump and his administration have inflicted on government institutions. 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.
Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and strengthening democratic norms and institutions, strongly backs this legislation. Congress should make it an institutional and bipartisan priority now and approve it before Election Day. 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. This is an opportunity for both parties to reestablish Congress’s authority ahead of the 2020 elections and to signal to the American people that they believe that presidents should serve the country’s interests, not their own.
“Just as Congress created guardrails following President Nixon’s abuses of power, Congress is now stepping up and protecting our democratic institutions from further damage,” said Protect Democracy’s Justin Vail. “The Protecting Our Democracy Act sends a strong message to the American public that there are those in Congress fighting to uphold the rule of law and ensure that the abuses of power we are now witnessing never happen again, no matter who is in the White House.”
“The Protecting Our Democracy Act represents long-time bipartisan consensus that the President must be subject to the rule of law and the separation of powers,” said Protect Democracy’s Soren Dayton. “Many of these provisions have received bipartisan support in the past. This bill is an important down payment on protecting the rule of law and the separation of powers.”
Protect Democracy’s Justin Vail and Soren Dayton, alumni of the Obama White House and the McCain for President campaign, respectively, have worked closely with Capitol Hill staff on the reforms and are available for further comment and analysis by request. A summary of Protect Democracy’s work is available here.
- Ian Bassin and Justin Florence, “Trump’s Acts Show the Urgent Need to Curb the Imperial Presidency,” The New York Times (April 1, 2019)
- Corey Dukes and Justin Vail, “Congress should take Mueller’s testimony as a call to action,” The Los Angeles Times (July 23, 2019)
- Ian Bassin and Justin Florence, “The candidates want to fix our democracy, but they’re missing a critical piece,” Concord Monitor (August 5, 2019)
- Charlie Savage, “Presidential Power Must Be Curbed After Trump, 2020 Candidates Say,” The New York Times (September 10, 2019)
- Kathryn Olmsted, “Watergate led to sweeping reforms. Here’s what we’ll need after Trump,” The Washington Post (November 15, 2019)
- Soren Dayton and Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, “Congress is losing ground on the budget; it’s time it claws that power back,” The Fulcrum (June 30, 2020)
- Mort Halperin and Soren Dayton, “Can Congress reclaim authority it has handed over to the president? It’s trying.,” The Washington Post (August 20, 2020)