WASHINGTON – House Democrats say they will vote on legislation this fall to curb the power of the president, an effort to rein in executive powers that they say President Donald Trump flagrantly abused.
The legislation, expected to be introduced Tuesday, would limit the president’s pardon power, strengthen laws to ban presidents from receiving gifts or payments from foreign governments, better protect independent agency watchdogs and whistleblowers from firing or retribution and give Congress better tools to enforce subpoenas. It was written with the input of President Joe Biden’s White House and incorporates a previous version that Democrats introduced just before the November election.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the bill is intended to restore checks and balances between Congress and the executive branch “so that no president of whatever party can ever assume that he or she has the power to usurp the power of the other branches of government.”
The legislation, Pelosi said, is “specific in its remedies and its inoculations against future abuse.”
The bill comes as Trump mulls another run for president and as Democrats defend a thin majority in the 2022 midterm elections. Most provisions in the legislation are in direct response to actions by Trump or his administration that Democrats saw as abuses of presidential power, including his firing of agency whistleblowers, his defiance of congressional subpoenas and his campaign’s interactions with Russians in the 2016 election.
The Democrats say they negotiated the bill with the White House, which thought some aspects of the original legislation went too far. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, the lead Democrat on the measure, said Tuesday that while they haven’t agreed with the administration on every provision, they made specific tweaks to accommodate them. Those changes would allow the White House to continue to protect some information from subpoenas and shield Congress from seeing some confidential communications between administration officials, Schiff said.
“We have accommodated their feedback, but we’re not in complete accord,” and will continue to work with the White House, Schiff said. He added that Biden has been supportive of the reforms generally.
White House spokesman Chris Meagher said in a statement that administration officials “strongly support efforts to restore guardrails and breathe life back into those longstanding norms” and that they are working with Congress to do that.
The bill is likely to be a tough sell in the 50-50 Senate, where Democrats need at least 10 votes to pass legislation and where Republicans have been reluctant to defy the former president.
Schiff said that loyalty to Trump is what makes the bill necessary.
“What was also very revealing in the last four years is that so many of our current checks and balances really depended on members of Congress of both parties having a deep abiding conviction of support for their own institution — that each would jealously guard their own institution,” he said. “And that broke down. When members were more devoted to the person of the president than they were to the institution, that’s made I think many of these reforms necessary.”
The legislation would prevent presidents from pardoning themselves — Trump once tweeted he had the “absolute power” to do just that as he was being investigated by the Justice Department — and would tighten federal bribery laws to clarify that a pardon could be considered a “thing of value.” It suspends the statute of limitations for any federal offense committed by a sitting president or vice president and strengthens regulations around foreign gifts.
It would also expedite the judicial process for enforcing congressional subpoenas and allow the court to levy fines on officials who willfully fail to comply. Dozens of Trump administration officials faced little consequence for defying subpoenas and ignoring information requests during Democrats' two impeachment probes and other investigations.
The bill would require stronger reporting requirements for campaigns and clarify and enhance criminal penalties for campaigns that accept foreign information sought or obtained for political advantage — a response to the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russians during the 2016 campaign, including conversations between the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and intermediaries about information that could incriminate Democrat Hillary Clinton.
A report by special counsel Robert Mueller found multiple contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia, but determined there was insufficient evidence to prove a criminal conspiracy between the two.