WASHINGTON — While Donald J. Trump’s norm-breaking presidency went through two impeachments, his departure set the stage for lawmakers to impose new limits on executive power, such as the post-Watergate period and the Vietnam War.
But nearly nine months after Mr. Trump left the White House, the legal rules for the presidency have yet to be tightened. Aspiring reformers, sensing the window to change could soon close, are preparing a big move — one that the Biden White House is watching closely.
House Democrats plan to reintroduce a broad package of restrictions on the executive branch this month. The bill — a refinement of legislation introduced last year during the presidential campaign for political reporting purposes — will bring together many proposals that make it through to congressional committees.
The bill is expected to cover nearly a dozen issues. Among them, it would make it more difficult for presidents to pardon in a bribe-like context and to spend — or secretly freeze — funds that conflict with Congressional appropriations. It would speed up lawsuits over congressional subpoenas. And it would reinforce the constitutional ban on presidents taking “emoluments” or payments from foreigners.
Known as the Protecting Our Democracy Act, the bill will be introduced by California Democrat Representative Adam B. Schiff, who also sponsored the 2020 version. But it represents the work of lawmakers and staffers on multiple committees who have been talking to the White House for months; Speaker Nancy Pelosi instructed them to join their efforts, aides said.
Recognizing that he “worked with my House colleagues to enact and advance that legislation in the coming weeks,” Mr. Schiff in a statement introduced the bill in response to the “many abuses of executive power by Mr Trump”. If Congress fails to put up new guardrails, he warned, Mr Trump’s conduct would serve as “a roadmap for future unscrupulous presidents to abuse their power and defeat the most fundamental surveillance efforts.”
The White House supports many of the ideas, according to people familiar with the talks with House Democrats. They include preventing the statute of limitations from expiring while presidents are in office and being temporarily shielded from prosecution; improving whistleblower protection; banning aid in foreign elections; and tightening the limits on who can appoint presidents to temporarily fill vacant positions that normally require Senate confirmation.
“The routine abuses of power by the previous administration and violations of long-standing norms posed a deep threat to our democracy,” said Chris Meagher, a White House spokesman. “We wholeheartedly support efforts to restore crash barriers and revive those old standards. We’re working with Congress to do that, and we’re building that commitment into everything this administration does.”
But the White House has also expressed skepticism and objected to some of the proposals as going too far and encroaching on presidents’ constitutional prerogatives, those familiar with the discussions said.
For example, the White House is relying on leniency to make it clearer that a pardon can count as a “thing of value” in an illegal bribery scheme and that presidents cannot forgive themselves. But the White House is uncomfortable with a related proposal to disclose White House internal communications and Justice Department files on leniency recipients to Congress.
Government officials would also be concerned about proposals to provide Congress with logs of White House interactions with the Justice Department, and to ban presidents from firing inspectors general without good reason.
And amid the possibility that Republicans could regain control of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections, the White House is reportedly skeptical about a proposal to give lawmakers a clearer right to sue the executive to overturn its subpoenas. to enforce. It would also expedite the resolution of such lawsuits and hold lower-ranking officials personally liable for paying court-imposed fines for refusing to comply with a subpoena — even if directed by the president.
Those changes could render obsolete the standard for resolving inter-industry disputes over information through compromise and adaptation, with litigation as a rare last resort. (Mr. Trump ignored that norm, vowing to stop “all” supervisory subpoenas and run the clock in court.)
It remains unclear whether the final bill will contain many of the ideas the White House has expressed concerns. In June, Mr Schiff told MSNBC House Democrats faced “some opposition from the government” and said he hoped President Biden and his team would see that the priority should be to make sure the system of checks and balances works.
“If that means making sure Congress can exercise its oversight, it should,” added Mr. Schiff. “So I hope we get some movement from them, but I’m determined to keep going no matter what.”
House Democrats aren’t the only White House allies urging the Biden team to accept new curbs. One of the outside attorneys joining them is Bob Bauer, Mr. Biden’s personal attorney.
Last year, Mr. Bauer, who served as White House counsel in the Obama administration, along with Jack L. Goldsmith, a senior official in the Bush Department of Justice, wrote a book proposing dozens of restrictions on executive power, called “After Trump: Rebuilding the Presidency.” This week, the couple formed an organization called the Presidential Reform Project.
With funding from philanthropic foundations, they hire a bipartisan team to lobby Congress. On Wednesday, they sent two letters to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland urging him to take certain steps to protect the Justice Department from politicking and to retract three Bush-era memos that ” take an extreme, indefensible view of the presidential war powers”.
“We have the time, but not much time, to make progress on reforms before the politics gets to the medium term, and then the 2024 election cycle makes it more difficult,” Bauer said. “It is critical to make some reforms in the coming months to gain momentum for this program.”
By framing the upcoming bill as a rebuke to Trump, Mr. Schiff could risk scaring Republicans — especially amid rumblings that mr. Trump can participate again in 2024. The Senate filibuster rule means that some Republican support would be needed there.
But officials and lawyers say the strategy in the Senate will be different. There, the ideas are likely to be split up and attached to other bills that, with different casting, are more likely to gain Republican support.
Most of the ideas predate the Trump presidency, said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, which has sought to improve protections for inspectors general and whistleblowers.
“A lot of these addresses in our system that may have been made clearer by Trump, but they’ve been there for a long time,” she said. “I know why the Democrats want to frame this as a bill of Trump, but we’ve been pushing for almost all of these reforms for decades.”
For example, the proposal to make public the White House’s contacts with the Department of Justice is now glaring as Mr. Trump and his aides have pressured prosecutors to let his political opponents and former aides be deemed disloyal. and to raise unfounded suspicions about the legitimacy of his 2020 election loss, but it mirrors a bill voted for in 2007 by Senators Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and John Cornyn of Texas, both Republicans.
And an idea to curtail a president’s power to declare a national emergency and unlock special standby powers — as Mr. Trump did to spend more taxpayer money on a border wall than Congress was willing to approve — reflects legislation introduced in 2019 by Senator Mike Lee, Republican from Utah, with 18 other Republican co-sponsors.
“We know we’ve already signed 19 Republicans to emergency power reform,” said Elizabeth Gotein, director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “It has broad bipartisan support — we know that. It’s going to be a matter of sticking to the Democrats anyway now that Biden is president.”
As a presidential candidate, Biden said in an executive inquiry that he would sign many types of post-Trump revisions, but he did not approve new limits on emergency powers.
The push is not limited to Mr Schiff’s account. For example, Lee has worked with Senators Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, and Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, on the National Security Powers Act, which would combine new limits on emergency powers with restrictions on presidential war powers and weapons sales.
And as part of an annual defense bill last week, the House Armed Services Committee a provision approved to transfer control of the National Guard of the District of Columbia from the president to the mayor. Mr Trump had deployed the Guard against protesters during protests against racial justice last year.
As an added bonus, the Protect Democracy group has hired a lobbying team led by a former Republican Senate employee to reach out to lawmakers in hopes of building bipartisan support, said Soren Dayton, a policy attorney with the group who worked for several elected Republicans.
“It’s time now and the window is closing,” Mr. Dayton said. “Many of these ideas have a history of bipartisan support. The progress so far is proof that Congress cares about the power of the legislature and the rule of law, but we’re going to learn if it cares enough.”