Former US President Donald Trump (file photo). Photograph:( AFP )
While the bill would constrain President Joe Biden and his successors, its implicit rebuke of Trump’s behaviour in the White House may limit how many Republicans are willing to vote for it.
House Democrats are planning to introduce a package of proposed new limits on executive power Tuesday, beginning a post-Trump push to strengthen checks on the presidency that they hope will compare to the overhauls that followed the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War.
Democrats have spent months negotiating with the Biden White House to refine a broad set of proposals that amount to a point-by-point rebuke of the ways that Donald Trump shattered norms over the course of his presidency. Democrats have compiled numerous bills into a package they call the Protecting Our Democracy Act.
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 legislation’s lead sponsor, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said he hoped it would receive a floor vote “this fall.”
While the bill would constrain President Joe Biden and his successors, its implicit rebuke of Trump’s behaviour in the White House may limit how many Republicans are willing to vote for it. Under Senate rules, at least 10 Republicans would need to support it for that chamber to hold a vote on such a bill.
But supporters noted that Republican senators previously supported significant components of the bill, like requiring the Justice Department to turn over logs of contacts with White House officials and constraining a president’s ability to declare a national emergency and spend money in ways Congress did not approve.
The supporters said they expected the package would be taken up piecemeal in the Senate, with different parts attached to other bills.
“Many of the pieces of the Protecting Our Democracy Act have previously received substantial Republican support in the Senate, and we believe that they will again as part of other legislation there,” said Soren Dayton, a policy advocate with the group Protect Democracy, which consulted with lawmakers on the text of the bill and is promoting it.
For now, as proponents first try to get the measures through the House, Democrats are squarely framing it as a response to the Trump presidency.
Trump’s demonstration that a president can routinely flout previous norms of self-restraint in office “has really put our republic on a very tenuous footing,” Schiff said. “Our democracy turns out to be much more fragile than we understood, and this is an effort to put into law that which we thought was already mandatory.”
On instructions from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the bill compiles components developed by numerous lawmakers and House committees.
While many of the proposals have been floating around for years, they took on new urgency among Democrats and some Republicans amid the controversies of the Trump era.
For example, in pushing a proposal to give greater force to the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in campaign politics at work, supporters of the legislation cited an episode in which a Trump White House aide, Kellyanne Conway, was cited by an independent agency for flagrant violations of that law. The Trump administration ignored the agency’s request to sanction her and she dismissed the finding as “blah, blah, blah.”
Other sections address issues that were obscure before the Trump era. One section, for instance, proposes to strengthen the Constitution’s ban on presidents taking “emoluments,” or payments, by declaring in statute that the anti-corruption prohibition extends to commercial transactions and making it easier to enforce that rule.
Trump’s refusal to divest from his hotels and resorts raised the question of whether lobbying groups and foreign governments that began paying for numerous rooms at Trump properties — and sometimes did not even use them — were trying to purchase his favor.
Another proposal would address a problem that arose in November, when a Trump appointee running the General Services Administration refused to formally “ascertain” that Biden was the president-elect. That failure to take a previously routine step prevented Biden’s transition staff from receiving briefings from agencies his new administration was about to take over, obstructing an orderly transition of power.
To prevent any recurrence, the bill says that if the head of the General Services Administration makes no decision by 10 days after the election, both campaigns can start transitions.
Schiff introduced a version of the bill in October 2020 to send a political message heading into the election. Democrats this time intend to pass the legislation and have spent months negotiating with the White House over elements that administration officials were concerned would intrude on traditional executive branch prerogatives.
House Democrats made some adjustments to the previous version in response to concerns raised by aides to Biden while leaving others in, according to people familiar with those negotiations.
The House dropped a proposal to require the White House to give Congress its internal communications with the president about pardons, which raised executive privilege concerns. But it kept another idea to which the administration is said to have objected, requiring the Justice Department to turn over its investigative files about clemency recipients.
Lawmakers also partly backed down from a proposal to make executive branch officials pay any court fines for defying subpoenas out of their own pockets. The revised bill will exclude cases in which presidents, in writing, had invoked executive privilege and instructed subordinates not to comply.
The administration is also said to have expressed concerns about a proposal to speed up court review of congressional lawsuits over subpoenas. Lawmakers added a provision requiring Congress to show a court, in such lawsuits, that it had made good-faith efforts to negotiate a compromise.
But even though the administration is also said to have raised separation-of-powers concerns about a proposal to bar presidents from firing inspectors general without a specific cause like misconduct, House Democrats kept it in the bill.
A White House spokesperson has previously said that the administration broadly supports most of the provisions “to restore guardrails” to American democracy, while pledging to work with Congress on the details.
Many components have already been the subject of committee hearings in the House or put into legislative language, and it is not clear whether Pelosi will send the bill to any committee — and if so, which one — or when she will bring it to a House floor.
In a statement, Pelosi called the legislation “a robust, transformative package of democracy reforms that will restore democratic norms and institutions and put in place essential safeguards to prevent any president, regardless of party, from abusing the public trust or desecrating our democracy.”
Democrats have also been coordinating with several government ethics groups to develop what they hope will be at least some bipartisan support. The groups include Stand Up America, which was founded after Trump’s surprise win in the 2016 election.
Its founder, Sean Eldridge, said in an interview that Stand Up America is planning to run digital ads promoting the bill, including on Facebook; to distribute explanations of the bill to the group’s members; and to ask them to write letters-to-the-editor and call lawmakers.
“Our plan is to engage our 2 million members and build a grassroots pressure campaign to help this across the finish line,” Eldridge said.