Roadmap for Renewal
Congressional Oversight and Legislation to Renew Our Democracy
In our constitutional system, Congress has a critical role to play in strengthening the institutions of our democracy and checking the power of the chief executive. To fulfill that role, Congress must draw on its implied and express powers under Article I: the power to investigate and the power to legislate, which go hand in hand. By gathering information about how the executive branch is executing the laws, Congress can pave the way for new legislative solutions.
The 116th Congress will have the imperative of reasserting its role as a guardian of our democracy. After democratic crises in our past, Congress used its oversight authority to examine the state of our institutions and enact wide-ranging reforms to improve the operation of our democracy. The post-Watergate era – which ushered in significant ethics, war powers, and intelligence reforms – can serve as a model for the next Congress. It is time for Congress again to use its oversight and legislative powers to protect and strengthen our democracy.
An Oversight Agenda for Protecting Our Democracy
To begin, the 116th Congress should shore up our democracy by using its oversight powers to examine abuses of executive power, identify important norms and laws that have been weakened or ignored, and start the process of restoring the rule of law. Protect Democracy has developed a package of proposed congressional investigations to achieve these goals. We propose fourteen investigations in three categories: (i) abuse of presidential and executive powers, (ii) corruption and politicization of democratic institutions, and (iii) failures to protect the American people. Each proposal contains a summary of the issue, the legal framework, and a detailed investigation plan, including documents to request and witnesses to question. These investigations will help pave the way for key democracy reform legislation by identifying the ways the current Administration has abused long-standing and bipartisan rules and norms.
A Legislative Blueprint for Restoring Our Democracy
Protect Democracy has also developed a comprehensive legislative package that should be advanced by a bipartisan majority in the new Congress to restore and renew the fundamental structures, institutions, and norms of our constitutional democracy. The Roadmap to Renewal, which we released on July 4 of this year, includes twenty-one reforms broken into five categories. The first three categories focus on the branches of government:(i) strengthening Congress’s capacity to fulfill its constitutional role; (ii) constraining abuses of executive power; and (iii) protecting the courts as a check on the other branches in order to uphold the constitution. The other two categories focus on deeper structural issues that have allowed for the decline of our democracy: (iv) protecting inclusive and fact-based democratic dissent, debate, and participation; and (v) modernizing our campaigns and election system to protect and enhance participation and accurately reflect the views of voters.
The oversight and legislative packages do not fall along traditional partisan lines and should be embraced by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. With bipartisan support, Congress can quickly begin tackling these issues and building momentum toward needed renewal.
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In recognition of pressing flaws in our democracy, a number of organizations from across the ideological spectrum have released promising proposals that address challenges faced by our democratic institutions. Ranging from ethics reform to election security, these proposals offer solutions that are in-depth, innovative, and actionable. Our Roadmap for Renewal in many cases draws on smart ideas from these proposals. Various congressional coalitions in the House have also offered reform plans for the 116th Congress with democracy at the center. We look forward to working together with peer organizations and Congress to advance democracy reform.*
*Inclusion on this page does not indicate endorsement of proposal.
Proposals (see more below):
- Brennan Center: National Task Force on Rule of Law & Democracy: Proposals for Reform
- Brennan Center, Democracy: An Election Agenda for Candidates, Activists, and Legislators
- R Street, Thinking Analytically about Election Security
- R Street, R Sheet on Congressional Reorganization Acts
- Public Citizen/CREW, Trump-Proofing the Presidency: A Plan for Executive Branch Ethics Reforms
- Roosevelt Institute, Unstacking the Deck: A New Agenda to Tame Corruption in Washington
- H.R. 1
Issue Areas(s): Ethics reform; Government accountability; Rule of law
- The taskforce is comprised of a bipartisan group of high-profile former government officials, academics, and lawyers. It is co-chaired by Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Christine Todd Whitman, former EPA Administrator during the George W. Bush Administration.
- 11 Congressional proposals divided into two areas: “Ethical conduct and government accountability,” and “The Rule of Law and Evenhanded Administration of Justice”
- Key Congressional proposals include (see pgs. 2-3 for full list):
- Reforming the Office of Government Ethics so that it can better enforce federal ethics laws.
- Requiring the president and vice president, and candidates for those offices, to publicly disclose their personal and business tax returns.
- Requiring a national security financial review for incoming presidents, vice presidents, and other senior officials.
- Passing legislation requiring the executive branch to articulate clear standards for and report on how the White House interacts with law enforcement.
- Requiring written justifications for pardons involving close associates.
- Passing legislation to protect special counsels from improper removal.
Issue Area(s): Protecting voting; Election security; Rule of law; Fair and impartial courts
- 20 in-depth proposals divided into 5 sections: (i) Protect and Expand Voting; (ii) Secure Elections Against Foreign Interference; (iii) Reduce the Influence of Money in Politics; Improve Redistricting and Representation; (iv) Safeguard Against Erosion of Rule of Law and Democratic Norms; and (v) Promote Fair and Impartial Courts
- Key Congressional proposals include (see pgs. 3-4 for full list):
- Enacting automatic voter registration (AVR); expanding early voting; preventing long line at the polls by allocating more resources to polling places; restoring the full protections of the Voting Rights Act; and restoring voting rights to citizens with past criminal convictions.
- Protecting eligible voters from improper purges of voter rolls by requiring: public notice before large-scale voter purges, individual notice before removal, published procedures for purges, and procedures to allow wrongly removed voters to cast a ballot that counts on Election Day.
- Updating political spending rules to better regulate online ads by enacting the Honest Ads Act and requiring disclosure of all sources of election spending.
- Establishing small-donor public financing, providing tax credits or rebates for small contributions to campaigns, and restructuring the FEC.
- Passing legislation that blocks the Commerce Department’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the decennial census and also fully fund the census.
- Electing the President by popular vote by states enacting legislation to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC).
- Requiring the White House and federal enforcement agencies to publish their policies relating to contacts between White House and law enforcement officials, and keep a record of all contacts.
- Protecting the Special Counsel from removal for improper reasons.
- Adopting a single term for Supreme Court justices.
- Replacing Supreme Court nominations with a publicly accountable appointment process.
Thinking Analytically about Election Security, April 2018
Issue Area(s): Election Security
- 10-page policy paper outlines vulnerabilities in current election management
- Identifies 3 key problems in electoral infrastructure: (i) lack of resources; (ii) lack of security standards; (iii) lack of central clearinghouse for threats
- Introduction of physical security requirements for voting machines and systems.
- Maintenance of physical paper voting records.
- Implementing robust cybersecurity measures, many of which are in place but required funding..
- Funding: Requiring the federal government to assist states and local agencies that want to move toward standards. Funding would be contingent on improvement, while also being voluntary with states free to decline funding if they wish.
R Sheet on Congressional Reorganization Acts, November 2018
Issue Area(s): Congressional Capacity
- 2-pager proposing the establishment of a fourth Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress to solicit member and expert recommendations on reforms for Congressional capacity and procedures.
Issues Area(s): Ethics reform
- 13 in-depth proposals divided into four sections: (i) preventing conflicts of interests; (ii) improving financial disclosure of candidates and office holders; (iii) enhancing rules on gifts to candidates and public officials; and (iv) strengthening the integrity of government.
- Key proposals include (see pgs. 5-6 for full list):
- Requiring the president and vice president to divest assets that pose a risk of conflict-of-interest within 30 days of the president’s inauguration and disclose their tax returns prior to election and, for office holders, in subsequent years.
- Strengthening the quality of executive branch ethics enforcement by either: (a) creating an overarching inspector general’s office to investigate potential ethics violations across the executive branch, including within the White House, or (b) vesting the Office of Government Ethics with enforcement authority.
- Improving the specificity of financial disclosure forms to require candidates and officials to disclose the value of their assets, income, transactions and liabilities.
- Passing legislation clarifying that Anti-Nepotism laws apply to the President; restricting the size of federal contracts for the president’s family members; and prohibiting a president’s family member from receiving security clearances, unless an individual is independently qualified to receive them.
- Requiring disclosure of White House visitor logs.
- Preventing the White House from unduly interfering in Justice Department affairs.
- Closing loopholes in the Hatch Act to prevent government employees from improperly engaging in political activities.
Issues Area(s): Ethics reform; Anti-corruption
- Focus on corruption as hurting the social fabric of American society and undermining democracy. Identifies four channels of influence to address: (i) personal profit from public service; (ii) the revolving door—where individuals move between government service and special interests; (iii) lackluster enforcement of existing rules and regulations; and (iv) corruption of supposedly independent watchdogs, including think tanks, advocacy organizations, and the media.
- Key proposals include:
- Establishing a new public integrity agency—Public Integrity Protection Agency (PIPA)— that consolidates enforcement and oversight authorities into a singular, accountable watchdog.
- Restructuring the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) and remove presidential control of inspectors general.
- Ending political controls of agency ethics officials.
- Closing loopholes that exempt the president from conflict-of-interest laws.
- Restricting certain individuals from activities that would benefit their prior employer; banning certain individuals from occupying senior government positions altogether.
Democratic leadership has unveiled plans for a democracy reform package, to be introduced as H.R. 1, the first bill in the 116th House of Representatives.
Issue Areas(s): Campaign finance reform; Government ethics laws; Voting rights
- Campaign finance reform:
- Requiring the president to disclose his or her tax returns and applying conflict-of-interest laws to the President.
- Preventing members of Congress from using taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment cases or buy first-class plane tickets.
- Entrusting more oversight and enforcement power in the Office of Government Ethics, and creating stricter lobbying registration requirements.
- Creating a new ethical code for the US Supreme Court.
- Voting rights:
- Creating national automatic voter registration that asks voters to opt out, rather than opt in. Early voting and online voter registration would also be promoted.
- Restoring the Voting Rights Act, ending partisan gerrymandering in federal elections, and prohibiting voter roll purging.
- Beefing up elections security, including requiring the Director of National Intelligence to do regular checks on foreign threats.
- Reforming the Federal Elections Commission.
- See a Vox summary of the bill and Nancy Pelosi and John Sarbanes’ op-ed in the Washington Post on the bill
- Justin Florence, Four Tools to Save a Constitutional Democracy, Take Care (October 29, 2018)
- Linda Chavez, How to protect democracy, Daily Herald (July 9, 2018)
- Eli Lehrer, Thoughts on a promising, imperfect Roadmap, R Street (July 6, 2018)
- Jennifer Rubin, Here’s how we’ll recover from Trump, The Washington Post (July 5, 2018)
- David French, Can Congress Get Its War Powers Back?, National Review (July 5, 2018)
- Eleanor Clift, The Watergate Babies Remade Washington. Could the Trump Babies Be Coming to Do It Again?, Daily Beast (March 31, 2018)