Not long into former President Donald Trump’s tenure in office, it became increasingly apparent that the greatest threat to our democracy came not from a Kremlin intent on subverting our elections but from within, from an executive willing to use his power maximally, without regard for other institutions or the norms of office long associated with the presidency.
It turns out the norms that made our system of checks and balances work so well could be violated with near impunity, provided one condition was present.
For decades, we assumed these norms were inviolate, that presidents couldn’t use their office to enrich themselves, use the Justice Department to go after their enemies, use federal employees and federal properties as campaign workforces and assets or ignore and belittle the powers of Congress. If these abuses were not per se illegal, they were unimaginable and beyond the pale of American politics. Or so we thought.
We were wrong. It turns out the norms that made our system of checks and balances work so well could be violated with near impunity, provided one condition was present: that one of America’s two great parties put the interests of a president above all other considerations.
The potent remedy the founders provided for a corrupt chief executive has proven ineffective — even for a president who sought illicit foreign help in his election and fomented an insurrection against his own government — in the face of one party’s determination to maintain power at all costs. The founders were deeply concerned about exactly this phenomenon, an excess of what they called “factionalism” and what we now call “extreme partisanship.” And the failure of that remedy to be equal to the evil of factionalism has put our democratic republic at grave risk.
The last time a president engaged in such abuses of office, during Richard Nixon’s tenure, the forces of factionalism were less potent and the devotion to our institutions was far stronger. That devotion was strong enough, in fact, to force Nixon from office. Even so, in the wake of Watergate, Congress passed a host of reforms to ensure that such abuses did not recur.
They served us well for almost half a century, but it is time for us to add to them.
The Protecting Our Democracy Act is the third pillar of our Congress' democracy agenda, along with the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. This latest legislative effort reflects the joint work product of several committees and dozens of members of Congress.
First, it would deter future abuses of presidential power by requiring that if a pardon is issued in a case involving the president or the president’s family, all investigative records must be provided to Congress. It would create a mechanism to enforce the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which prohibits federal officials from accepting gifts from foreign powers without authorization. And it would stiffen penalties for pressing the federal workforce into campaign service in violation of the Hatch Act.
Second, it would restore our system of checks and balances by ensuring that Congress can enforce its subpoenas in expedited fashion and that efforts to run out the clock on congressional oversight will fail. It would strengthen the powers and independence of the inspectors general so they could provide critical oversight and protect whistleblowers who come forward to report fraud or abuse. It would require a paper trail of contacts between the White House and the Department of Justice to expose any corrupt efforts to politicize the department. And it would prevent the executive from usurping Congress’ power of the purse and allocating taxpayer funds for purposes not authorized or approved by Congress.
New sections of the bill would require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns and prevent harmful delays in presidential transitions. And finally, the bill would help to protect our elections from foreign interference by requiring that campaigns report foreign contacts and by prohibiting any campaign from accepting assistance from a foreign power.
While this bill is being offered by Democrats, we hold out the hope that some of our Republican colleagues will recognize that there should be nothing partisan about preserving the checks and balances that have kept our democracy strong for more than two centuries. And that we should guard against the repetition of any of the presidential abuses we have witnessed by a future president of either party.
Donald Trump is no longer president, but the road map he left behind for any unscrupulous, aspiring autocrat is apparent to all. That is why it is up to us to act, to restore the guardrails he purposefully tore down and to put in place reforms so that our democracy is never again placed in such peril.
Co-signed by Rep. Anna Eshoo, Rep. Steve Cohen, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Rep. Jackie Speier, Rep. Eric Swalwell, Rep. Ted Lieu, Rep. Madeleine Dean, Rep. Katie Porter and Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon