How to protect democracy
There was a time in recent history when conservatives understood the dangers of an imperial presidency. I, along with most conservative commentators, railed against the overreach of the Obama administration in everything from health care to environmental policy. Even when I agreed with the goal, e.g., giving protections to undocumented immigrants who had come to the United States as children, I argued that the method President Barack Obama used — an executive memorandum, in this case — was flawed.
Like most conservatives, I support separation of powers and believe that neither presidents nor the courts should try to legislate. Today, unfortunately, all too many conservatives have given up on the idea that Congress makes laws, the president’s role is to implement them and the courts are charged with ensuring that laws enacted conform to the Constitution and are implemented as written.
Partisanship now trumps principle, to the detriment of conservatism and the country. Is there any way to reverse this trend and stop the erosion of democratic values? Yes, but with the ranks of conservatives who hold principle above party having thinned dramatically, we may need to seek out allies who share a commitment to the Constitution and democracy, even if they don’t agree with us on policy.
On July 4, the group Protect Democracy released a report titled “Roadmap for Renewal: A Legislative Blueprint for Protecting our Democracy.” The group is trying to forge an agenda that will appeal to those on the center-right, as well as their allies on the center-left, and there is much to recommend among its suggestions. The most important reform the blueprint calls for is restoring the role of Congress in legislating and appropriating funds. Under both Democratic and Republican presidents, Congress has been abdicating its role in these areas, deferring to the president, especially when he is of the same party as the majority in Congress. The dangers of this abdication are playing out now in the trade arena, where President Donald Trump has decided he can use his security powers to slap tariffs on not just our adversaries, such as China, but also our allies, including our closest and biggest partners, such as Canada, Mexico and Germany. This usurpation should not go unchecked when the Constitution explicitly grants Congress the power to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations.” Congress has been delegating its authority to the executive branch for years, but the Trump administration is going far beyond the powers delegated to it to impose whatever policy suits the president’s whims to punish or reward individual countries on a given day.
Another of the group’s recommendations is to codify additional checks to protect the independence of the Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies. Post-Watergate reforms to ensure that the attorney general would never again play the political role John Mitchell did during the Nixon administration have served the country well. But President Trump’s nearly constant assault on the current attorney general and the DOJ undermines those reforms. And the president’s relentless attacks on the FBI and its investigation into the 2016 election are a grave danger to democracy. Despite unanimity among intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the presidential election with the intent of helping Trump win, the president continues to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word over that of his own appointees to those agencies. Worse, he may seek to fire those investigating his campaign and pre-emptively pardon those charged with crimes.
The blueprint also calls for changes to allow term limits for Supreme Court justices, limits to the president’s war powers, oversight of presidential pardons and more disclosure and divestment of business interests for White House personnel, among other recommendations. I don’t agree with all the recommendations, but the document is a serious one and worth reading. With the Constitution as our guidepost, it’s time to embrace our Founding Fathers’ understanding that we can only protect democracy by ensuring that no single branch of government or temporary leader can become too powerful.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.