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House ‘democracy’ bill would cap executive power, expand disclosure

Schiff says GOP members live ‘in utter fear’ of Trump

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Republicans should support a bill that restrains the power of the executive but they  "live in utter fear" of former President Donald Trump.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Republicans should support a bill that restrains the power of the executive but they "live in utter fear" of former President Donald Trump. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Seeking to avoid a repeat of the scandal-plagued Trump presidency, House Democrats approved a bill almost entirely along party lines Thursday that would put new limits on executive branch power and subject presidential candidates to more disclosure.

Though many of the bill’s provisions would now apply to President Joe Biden, a Democrat, every Republican but one in the House opposed it, with some urging their opponents to give up their obsession with former President Donald Trump. 

The measure, dubbed the Protecting Our Democracy Act, would require presidents, vice presidents and anyone running for those offices from a major political party to disclose their tax returns. That’s something Trump never did, flouting a longstanding tradition. It also would toughen the fines for executive branch officials who violate the Hatch Act, which prohibits nearly all such employees from engaging in campaign activities in their official capacity.  

Violations of the Hatch Act are not uncommon, and members of the Trump administration, notably counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, were found to have violated the law repeatedly. Former Democratic Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has also been deemed to have violated it

The bill’s backers also say it would help shield federal government whistleblowers, insulate the Justice Department from political interference, strengthen congressional subpoena power and  prohibit a president from giving self-pardons.  

“The last administration saw our democracy in crisis with a rogue president who trampled over the guardrails protecting our republic,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said during floor debate of the bill. “Now Congress has a solemn responsibility and opportunity to safeguard our democracy, ensuring that past abuses can never be perpetrated by any president of any party.” 

Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger was the only Republican in the House to back the measure and many Republicans argued forcefully against it.

Hunter Biden probe promised

Kentucky Republican Rep. James R. Comer said it was time for Democrats to “abandon their obsession with Donald Trump” and called the measure “bad policy that diminishes the power of the executive branch.”

He also said he was “glad” Democrats had robustly investigated Trump and members of his family. “I think that’s fair game,” he said on the House floor Thursday. “And I can promise the American people that very soon there will be that type of oversight for the Biden administration and the president’s son, Hunter,” he added, hinting at what might be in store if  Republicans win control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections.

California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead sponsor of the bill, said recently during a video call with the campaign finance overhaul group End Citizens United that Republicans should embrace the measure. 

“So many of our Republican colleagues live in utter fear of the former president, but as a policy matter they have every reason to like the policy provisions in this bill,” Schiff said. He noted the GOP’s opposition to voting rights and elections law overhauls but said: “Even a Republican Party that is hostile to voting rights should want the power to constrain an executive, particularly given that the current executive is a member of the other party.”

For its part, the White House issued a statement of administration policy saying it supported the measure. “Our constitutional structure is designed to preserve democracy and prevent authoritarianism,” the statement said. “That promise is imperiled when a President places himself above the law, disregards the separation of powers, retaliates against legitimate whistleblowers, allows corruption to take hold, or enables foreign interference in our elections.”

Summit for Democracy at White House

Biden, who convened a Summit for Democracy with 100 nations on Thursday, said governments and activists needed to “lock arms and reaffirm our shared commitment to make our democracies better.” 

Vice President Kamala Harris, in remarks to the summit Thursday, expressed “urgent concern that democracy is presently under threat,” citing the emboldening of autocracies around the world and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob trying to keep Biden’s election from being certified.

“Here in the United States, we know that our democracy is not immune from threats. January 6th looms large in our collective conscience. And the anti-voter laws that many states have passed are part of an intentional effort to exclude Americans from participating in our democracy,” the vice president said.

She said ensuring every American had access to the right to vote is “a top priority” for the Biden administration. Many activists pushing for Congress to overturn state laws that impose new restrictions on voting, however, have said Biden needs to do more, and have called on him to pressure the Senate to eliminate its 60-vote filibuster rule for legislation. 

Filibuster looms

That rule remains, however, so even after House passage Thursday, the Schiff bill is unlikely to glide through the Senate.  

“What happens next is probably going to be dependent, in the absence of broad Republican support, on whether we can carve out the filibuster to protect our democracy,” Schiff said.

Activists who support the Schiff bill — as well as a voting rights measure and an overhaul of campaign finance and election laws stalled in the Senate — said they would continue to push for action.   

“There are conversations, very serious conversations going on to find a path forward to restore the Senate as a place that can debate and pass legislation, including for voting rights and democracy legislation,” said Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel of public policy and government affairs for Common Cause. 

Of the Schiff bill specifically, he noted: “A lot of the solutions in the bill stand the test of time. This is not by any stretch of the imagination a bill that is trying to wield a partisan cudgel. These reforms will apply to presidents of any party.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this story. 

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