Beyond Impeachment, a Push for Ethics Laws That Do Not Depend on Shame

January 11, 2021
In The News

House Democrats move toward punishing President Trump with a history-making second impeachment, they are also pressing ahead with a parallel effort to try to ensure that Mr. Trump’s four-year record of violating democratic and constitutional norms cannot be repeated. Mr. Trump’s term has revealed enormous gaps between the ideals of American democracy and the reality. Even before he incited a mob to attack the Capitol and the legislative branch of government, he ignored watchdog rulings and constitutional safeguards, pressed to overturn the outcome of an election, and pardoned those who covered for him, all while funneling taxpayer dollars to his family business. In response, lawmakers and pressure groups are pushing for a wide-ranging overhaul of ethics laws, the likes of which have not been seen since the post-Watergate era, hoping to reconstruct and strengthen the guardrails that Mr. Trump plowed through. “If anything, the events at the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday create even more urgency to swiftly reform the structural flaws in our democracy,” said Representative John P. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who is leading the legislative effort. Among the changes embraced by House Democratic leaders are limits on the president’s pardon powers, mandated release of a president’s tax returns, new enforcement powers for independent agencies and Congress, and firmer prohibitions against financial conflicts of interest in the White House.... Two major pieces of legislation, the Protecting Our Democracy Act and H.R. 1, will be the main vehicles to address the sweep of questionable practices in the Trump era, which culminated in the president’s efforts to reverse the election outcome and provoke a riot to thwart the final electoral vote for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. Last Tuesday, a provision in the Protecting Our Democracy Act, which would shield independent inspectors general from retaliation and help ensure that vacant watchdog slots are filled promptly, was pulled out and passed by the House by a bipartisan voice vote. As keen as Republicans may be to put limits on Mr. Biden’s presidency, they may not be so acquiescent to the Democrats’ broader bills if they are seen as a rebuke to Mr. Trump. But Democrats say they will press hard, especially in the wake of the Capitol’s desecration. “This president has exploited people’s fears in a way that is reckless and hugely damaging to our democracy and our society,” said Representative John P. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who is leading the legislative effort. Congress, he added, must seek “ways of hardening our democracy against attacks from within and without.”