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Congress must rebuild the presidency

The Protecting Our Democracy Act is Congress’s chance to protect the public from future American tyrants.

Representative Adam Schiff of California is the lead sponsor of the Protect Our Democracy Act. “It turns out so many of the protections of our system are easily flouted, ”Schiff said, regarding the years of the Trump administration.Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

When Donald Trump lost the presidency, he left behind a treasure map for future American tyrants that shows them precisely how to undermine — and potentially destroy — American democracy. By constantly and shamelessly flouting anticorruption norms and laws, the former president exposed just how weak the United States’ system of checks and balances is and its desperate need for reform. And evading any accountability for now, he has proved that presidents can go so far as to foment an insurrection without facing any legal consequences.

The American presidency has, in turn, become a ticking time bomb, waiting for a future tyrant to abuse its power in order to succeed where Trump failed. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just as Jimmy Carter signed anticorruption reforms into law after Richard Nixon’s crooked presidency, President Biden must swiftly establish new laws that strengthen accountability for himself and his successors.


The good news is that Congress may be on its way to sending Biden a bill to do just that. Known as the Protecting Our Democracy Act, the bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation that Congress will deliberate during Biden’s presidency, and it sets the stage for the federal government to finally address the damage that Trump imposed on the office. “We discovered over the last four years just how much our system is reliant on certain norms of behavior that we thought were inviolate,” Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, the lead sponsor of the bill, told the Globe editorial board. “It turns out so many of the protections of our system are easily flouted.”

If it’s passed, the bill would strengthen enforcement mechanisms that protect the government and the public from presidential abuse of power as well as introduce new and reasonable restraints on the executive branch. Among other things, it would give Congress more oversight over presidential pardons that may be self-serving and make explicit that presidents cannot pardon themselves; strengthen enforcement of laws like the Hatch Act or the Constitution’s emoluments clause; bolster Congress’s subpoena power by fast-tracking judicial proceedings and empowering courts to levy fines on government officials who do not comply; and require presidents and vice presidents, as well as candidates for those offices, to release 10 years of their tax returns — a provision that was recently dropped from the voting rights bill that congressional Democrats are seeking to pass.


Though much of the bill is informed by the lessons of Trump’s corrupt reign, its passage ought to be a bipartisan cause: As Republicans very well know, corruption is not limited to their party, and the next wannabe tyrant could be a Democrat. And, as Schiff pointed out, “There are a number of Republicans who have been interested in these reforms in the past.” There is no reasonable explanation for why those Republicans’ support for this kind of oversight would suddenly disappear; if it does, it would only be more evidence that the party cannot move past their standard bearer’s grip.

There’s also another hurdle that congressional Democrats need to overcome: pushback from the Biden White House. It is, in some ways, a sign of a well-functioning government to have separate branches skeptical of each other despite being led by the same party as opposed to having them uncritically fall in line. But Biden shouldn’t have much to worry about. One concern from the White House, for example, is empowering Congress to enforce its subpoenas of executive branch officials, since Republicans could win back majorities in the midterms and potentially abuse their new oversight powers. That’s a valid concern given the GOP’s antidemocratic streak, but that’s also precisely the kind of congressional power that could have contained — or at least shed light on — some of Trump’s dangerous abuses.


Plus, there are still protections in place against Congress unjustly taking advantage of having more teeth to keep the executive branch in check. “If [the Biden White House is] acting in good faith, as I know they would be, and if Congress is not, then the court is in a position to evaluate that,” Schiff said. “What it would mean is that those decisions in court would be made sooner rather than later, and that’s not something that I think the administration should fear.”

Another reported White House concern is the bill’s provisions that ban presidents from firing inspectors general without good cause. But after Trump’s explicit attack on inspectors general — “I think we’ve been treated very unfairly by inspector generals,” he said, after firing a bunch of them — it’s important to give the executive branch watchdogs an extra layer of protection.

Ultimately, the Protecting Our Democracy Act can be perceived by presidents in two ways: One is a limit on presidential power; the other is a limit on a president’s ability to abuse that power. And the public ought to be wary of any president who views it as the former. Given its focus on oversight and transparency, the bill’s chief concern is preventing abuse. “At the end of the day, I think the goal was to reestablish the guardrails we thought we had but have been broken down over the last four years,” Schiff said.


The White House still favors many of the bill’s provisions, and Biden himself has given voice to the need for post-Trump anticorruption reform. That’s why, despite some of the administration’s concerns about how Republicans may abuse it in the near term, Biden ought to take the long view: This bill is for protecting American democracy from a tyrannical president. And if Trump or an equally antidemocratic candidate wins the presidency in 2024, then the public will have more resources to hold them accountable in real time.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.