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House Dems seek to curb presidential power with new bill targeting potential abuses

House Democrats unveiled a sweeping package of government reforms Monday aimed at curbing future abuses of power by a president and strengthening congressional oversight powers, in response to the conflicts they’ve had with the Trump administration in the last three years. 

The legislation, called the “Protecting Our Democracy Act,” wouldn’t pass the Republican-controlled Senate even if it were to pass the House before the end of the current Congress, but it is among the bills Democrats have prepared, should they recapture the Senate and White House this November. It would complement H.R.1, another reform package targeting voting rights, campaign finance and government ethics House Democrats passed in 2019. 

The committee chairs who authored the legislation say it will prevent future abuses and restore the balance of power between Congress and the White House, and they argue that the foundation of democracy is “deeply at risk” without changes.  

“Since taking office, President Trump has placed his own personal and political interests above the national interest by protecting and enriching himself, targeting his political opponents, seeking foreign interference in our elections, eroding transparency, seeking to end accountability, and otherwise abusing the power of his office,” the chairs said in a statement. “It is time for Congress to strengthen the bedrock of our democracy and ensure our laws are strong enough to withstand a lawless president.” 

The latest legislation tries to claw back more power for Congress and to curb the president’s power under the Constitution, an area where Democrats have struggled, despite hundreds of hours spent on investigations of the current administration and impeachment proceedings that ended with the president’s acquittal in the Senate. 

It would speed up the process by which Congress can turn to the courts to enforce a subpoena and empower the courts to fine government officials who fail to comply. Democrats have used the contempt process to try to compel Attorney General William Barr, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and former White House Counsel Don McGahn to comply with subpoenas, only to see those efforts stall in court or fail to produce documents they sought. 

There are also provisions aimed at limiting the administration’s ability to govern through emergency declarations or to divert federal funds away from the use intended by Congress. 

The bill would also try to curb potential political interference by the Justice Department, and even allow fines against White House officials who violate the Hatch Act by engaging in partisan political activity while acting in an official capacity. An ethics watchdog for the White House recommended that one of President Trump’s key advisers, Kellyanne Conway, be fired for violating the act, but she faced no consequences from the White House. 

Other measures would strengthen protections for whistleblowers in the federal government and try to give further support to the inspectors general who independently investigate federal agencies.  

The president himself would face increased scrutiny and limits on his ability to issue pardons or commutations to relatives or officials who were found to have obstructed Congress. Self-pardons would be prohibited, and there would be laws to strengthen the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which bans government leaders from receiving gifts or profiting from foreign or domestic officials. A complaint by the District of Columbia and Maryland that President Trump has violated the clause by accepting the business of foreign and state governments at his hotel in Washington, D.C. has been tied up in court for years.  

A third prong of the expansive legislation targets potential election interference by foreign countries, in part by requiring political committees and campaigns report certain foreign contacts. That was the subject of part of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. 

The bill was authored by Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal.  

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