With Government Reform Package, Democrats Eye an Era After Trump
WASHINGTON — House Democrats unveiled a far-reaching package of government reforms on Wednesday meant to protect federal watchdogs, bulk up congressional oversight powers and impose new penalties on presidential appointees who violate an ethics law by participating in political activities while on the job.
The multifaceted bill, assembled by seven House committee chairmen at the direction of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is Democrats’ most comprehensive response to date to what they consider abuses and excesses by President Trump and his administration. It has almost no chance of becoming law as long as Mr. Trump is in office, but Democrats say the bill would be an early priority if their party retakes control of the Senate and the White House in January.
They likened their goal to the raft of laws passed after the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in the 1970s, when Congress adopted new campaign finance and government ethics requirements and put into place a rigorous new plan to oversee the nation’s intelligence services.
“Our democracy is not self-effectuating — it takes work and a commitment to guard it against those who would undermine it, whether foreign or domestic,” the chairmen said in a statement before the bill’s release. “It is time for Congress to strengthen the bedrock of our democracy and ensure our laws are strong enough to withstand a lawless president.”
Republicans are unlikely to see the proposals in such a favorable light, though some of them aim to address concerns that have cropped up in other administrations when Democrats and Republicans have technically stayed within the bounds of the law but defied Congress’s intent.
Even institutionalists in the party who have traditionally fought for Congress’s interests against the executive branch now view House Democrats as fixated on destroying Mr. Trump above all else and disingenuous in their desire for real bipartisan change. Several of the provisions are likely to be susceptible to legal challenge.
The authors of the bill include some of Mr. Trump’s chief antagonists, who have spent the past two years investigating various aspects of his presidency and leading his impeachment by the House last year. They are Representatives Adam B. Schiff of California, who oversees the Intelligence Committee; Jerrold Nadler of New York, who oversees the Judiciary Committee; and Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, who oversees the Ways and Means Committee and has sought Mr. Trump’s tax returns.
The residue of many of those fights can be seen scattered throughout the bill.
It would, for instance, grant new protections to whistle-blowers, including the right to sue if they are publicly identified by government officials, as was the case with an anonymous intelligence agency whistle-blower whose complaint about a July 2019 phone call by Mr. Trump prompted the impeachment inquiry.
Another section of the bill would take aim at Mr. Trump’s rash of firings of independent inspectors general embedded in federal agencies who were investigating him or his appointees. It would stipulate that only the president can fire an inspector general and only for cause, putting in new requirements that the president detail the rationale for removal to Congress, something Mr. Trump has shirked.
Democrats would try to limit the president’s pardon powers, explicitly outlawing presidents from pardoning themselves, and pause the statute of limitations on any federal offense committed by presidents or vice presidents during their time in office so they cannot escape charges that would otherwise be brought if they were not in office.
And amid myriad fights with the White House over whether congressional subpoenas must be obeyed, Democrats propose requiring the courts to expedite those lawsuits enforcing the summons to prevent lengthy delays in testimony, such as the yearslong holdups caused by legal appeals by Trump administration officials like Donald F. McGahn II. Their bill would also allow courts to impose “monetary penalties” on individuals who defied subpoenas.
The bill includes some better-known provisions Democrats have been promoting for years, like a requirement that political campaigns report to the F.B.I. and Federal Election Commission foreign offers of election assistance and new powers to police potential violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clauses.
Others have garnered less attention or, like the Hatch Act provision, respond to actions taken as recently as this summer, when Mr. Trump shattered longstanding norms by using the White House as the backdrop for the Republican National Convention and inviting some of his top government appointees to speak.
Democrats would try to strengthen the Hatch Act, an anticorruption law intended to prevent the use of government power for private political purposes, by giving a government watchdog new investigative powers and clarifying that those working directly for the president and vice president are not exempt. It would also raise the maximum fine for violations by political appointees to $50,000.
Democrats — and some Republicans — have bristled as Mr. Trump has placed unusual numbers of “acting” officials atop federal agencies and in cabinet positions to circumvent the usual Senate confirmation process meant to ensure those running executive branch departments are well qualified and well vetted. Their bill would try to curb that use by limiting temporary, non-Senate-confirmed agency chiefs or other cabinet posts to serving just 120 days, compared with the 210 days currently allowed.
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