WASHINGTON — After Donald J. Trump lost the election and was impeached for his role in the Capitol riot, democracy preservation groups pointed with urgency to what they called a last, best chance to address the holes in the Constitution exposed by his presidency.
But a suite of legislative responses, like requiring the release of presidential tax returns and barring presidents from channeling government money to their private businesses, is now hostage in the Senate to a more public fight over voting rights. And competing priorities of President Biden’s may ensure that the moment to fortify constitutional guardrails that Mr. Trump plowed through may already have passed.
Most Democrats and a coalition of watchdog groups say the ethics and voting rights sections in a sprawling Senate bill known as the For the People Act, or S.1., should remain intact and entwined. But solid Republican opposition to the legislation’s voter access proposals threatens less debated elements in the measure, part of what was envisioned to be the most comprehensive ethics overhaul since Watergate.
Even Democratic support for the bill has begun to splinter, as the Congressional Black Caucus and some advocacy groups pivot from the full 800-page legislation to pushing for narrower proposals.
“It’s hard to move many things simultaneously through the Senate, and you have a president who is rightly first focused on Covid relief and next focused on infrastructure,” said Max Stier, who leads the Partnership for Public Service, which champions a more effective federal work force. “I worry that important issues like ethics reform don’t make the cut.”
The measure will undergo changes in a formal drafting on May 11 by the Senate Rules Committee that aims to clarify confusing provisions, conflicting deadlines and redundancies. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, vowed last month to bring the full bill to a vote. “If our democracy doesn’t work, then we have no hope — no hope — of solving any of our other problems,” he said.
The act would expand voting access, curb partisan gerrymandering and curtail the influence of secret donors, special interests and foreign governments in American elections, all hot-button issues that Republican leaders strongly oppose.
“This is clearly an effort by one party to rewrite the rules of our political system,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said last month in a hearing on the bill. “This legislation would forcibly rewrite the election laws in all 50 states.”
The bill’s presidential ethics section is less contested. Major party candidates for president and vice president would have to release 10 years’ worth of personal and business tax returns. The president’s and vice president’s exemption from executive branch conflict-of-interest rules would end. Presidents would be required to place personal financial holdings in a blind trust or limit them to assets that pose no conflict. And federal spending at businesses owned or controlled by the president, vice president, cabinet or their family members would be tightly controlled.
To guard against a president pressuring appointees to interfere in government proceedings involving the president, it would require political appointees to turn such matters over to career staff. The act also addresses the Trump administration’s open flouting of ethics laws already on the books, by granting more power to enforcement bodies like the Office of Government Ethics.
Such provisions have received scant public discussion, but with Republicans dead set against unrelated voting provisions, the legislation appears to have no chance of passing the Senate under current rules, which would require at least 10 Republicans to support it.
“Someone could pull out the ethics portion and see if they could get support,” said Richard L. Hasen, a law and political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, and an expert in election and campaign finance law. “But usually it takes a scandal to get people moving on ethics reform.”
And three months into the Biden era, the Trump presidency is already receding.
Democratic leaders have so far spurned behind-the-scenes suggestions by some lawmakers and watchdog groups to separate the voting and ethics titles, to give the ethics measure a better shot at passage.
“If we win ethics reforms but still allow politicians to pick and choose their voters or billionaires to buy elections, we will still see a government that prioritizes the needs of special interests over working families,” Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon and the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, said in a statement. “The reason the For the People Act was crafted as a singular package is because each of these interlocking parts works together to return power to the people.”
The act’s voting access measures would allow online, same-day and automatic voter registration, and require the use of paper ballots as a safeguard against fraud. It takes aim at partisan gerrymandering by standardizing rules and opening the process of congressional redistricting to the public. The act would broaden disclosure requirements for campaign and presidential inaugural committee contributions by nonprofit groups and publicly listed companies.
Its ethics provisions go beyond the executive branch. It would require the entire federal judiciary, including Supreme Court justices, to create a code of ethics within a year of the bill’s enactment. It would tighten reporting and other rules governing lobbying on behalf of foreign governments.
For Congress, the bill would impose fuller disclosure of lawmakers’ outside income, require congressional candidates to disclose whether individual campaign donors are lobbyists, prohibit House members from serving on the boards of for-profit companies, and bar House and Senate members and their staff aides from working to advance legislation that would benefit their or their families’ personal financial interests. It would also bar lawmakers from using taxpayer money to pay damages awarded in discrimination and sexual misconduct cases.
“It’s critically important that the For the People Act remain big, bold and together,” said Aaron Scherb, the director of legislative affairs for Common Cause, one of several groups working with Democrats on the bill, adding, “People don’t want piecemeal solutions to comprehensive problems.”
But insisting on it all, at this point, could mean getting nothing, and talk is percolating that the ethics measures should not be allowed to die with the broader bill. Danielle Brian, the executive director at the Project on Government Oversight, says the group has been working on salvaging some of the bill’s ethics proposals, some which might not need Congress at all.
“We are focusing on pushing those ethics reforms that are in the bill that the Biden administration could be implementing without legislation, right away,” she said.
For example, the group has been pressing for the creation of a centralized records database on the Office of Government Ethics public website that would open financial and other disclosures filed by executive branch nominees to greater scrutiny. Mr. Stier said the Partnership for Public Service had thrown its weight behind another Trump corrective, the Accountability for Acting Officials Act, which would prohibit acting agency chiefs from serving more than 120 days, and would require acting inspectors general to possess relevant qualifications.
Ms. Brian’s group has advocated several ethics proposals contained in a separate, expansive ethics bill, the Protecting Our Democracy Act, which is being updated in the House. It, too, would require candidates for president to release 10 years of tax returns, while beefing up protections for whistle-blowers and inspectors general, barring presidents from pardoning themselves and prohibiting presidents and vice presidents from receiving gifts, called emoluments in the Constitution, from foreign nations without congressional consent. The bill defines emoluments to include payments arising from commercial transactions, clarifying vague constitutional language that Mr. Trump and his family ignored as they profited from his presidency.
The bill would also strengthen enforcement of the Hatch Act, which prohibits executive branch employees from engaging in partisan political activity, in part by fining violators up to $50,000 per transgression.
But that bill’s timing remains uncertain, while its chief architect, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the Intelligence Committee chairman, leads an investigation into the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
Mr. Schiff’s whipsawing from one Trump-inspired affront to democracy to another underscores Congress’s dilemma. It cannot fix everything at once, even with bipartisan cooperation.
“Trump flooded the zone with so much norm-breaking and in some cases sheer illegality — the question is where to prioritize,” Mr. Hasen said. “You’ve kind of got to decide where your battles are going to be.”
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