New laws for the New Year

Let’s bless the Brennan Center, which today laid out a solution for the situation we find ourselves in:

The values that undergird American democracy are being tested. As has become increasingly clear, our republic has long relied not just on formal laws and the Constitution, but also on unwritten rules and norms that constrain the behavior of public officials. These guardrails, often invisible, curb abuses of power. They ensure that officials act for the public good, not for personal financial gain. They protect nonpartisan public servants in law enforcement and elsewhere from improper political influence. They protect businesspeople from corrupting favoritism and graft. And they protect citizens from arbitrary and unfair government action. These practices have long held the allegiance of public officials from all political parties. Without them, government becomes a chaotic grab for power and self-interest.

Lately, the nation has learned again just how important those protections are — and how flimsy they can prove to be. For years, many assumed that presidents had to release their tax returns. It turns out they don’t. We assumed presidents would refrain from interfering in criminal investigations. In fact, little prevents them from doing so. Respect for expertise, for the role of the free press, for the proper independent role of the judiciary, seemed firmly embedded practices. Until they weren’t.

Presidents have overreached before. When they did so, the system reacted. George Washington’s decision to limit himself to two terms was as solid a precedent as ever existed in American political life. Then Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for and won a third and then a fourth term. So, we amended the Constitution to formally enshrine the two-term norm. After John F. Kennedy appointed his brother to lead the Justice Department and other elected officials sought patronage positions for their family members, Congress passed an anti-nepotism law. Richard Nixon’s many abuses prompted a wide array of new laws, ranging from the special prosecutor law (now expired) to the Budget and Impoundment Control Act and the War Powers Act. Some of these were enacted after he left office. Others, such as the federal campaign finance law, were passed while he was still serving, with broad bipartisan support, over his veto. In the wake of Water- gate, a full-fledged accountability system — often unspoken — constrained the executive branch from lawless activity. This held for nearly half a century.

In short, time and again abuse produced a response. Reform follows abuse — but not automatically, and not always. Today the country is living through another such moment. Once again, it is time to act. It is time to turn soft norms into hard law. A new wave of reform solutions is essential to restore public trust. And as in other eras, the task of advancing reform cannot be for one or another party alone.

The analysis, called “Proposals for Reform: National Task Force on Rule of Law & Democracy,” by a sterling group of people (Preet Bharara, Christine Todd Whitman, Mike Castle, Christopher Edley, Jr, Chuck Hagel, David Iglesias, Amy Comstock Rick, Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.), has “examined norms and practices surrounding financial conflicts, political interference with law enforcement, the use of government data and science, the appointment of public officials, and many other related issues. We have consulted other experts and former officials from both parties. Despite our differences, we have identified concrete ways to fix what has been broken.”

There’s a highlighted red link to their full report, the table of contents for which takes on these topics:

  • Ethical Conduct and Government Accountability
  • Ensure Transparency in Government Officials’ Financial Dealings
  • Bolster Safeguards to Ensure Officials Put the Interests of the American People First
  • Ensure that Officials Are Held Accountable Where AppropriateT
  • The Rule of Law and Evenhanded Administration of Justice
  • Safeguard Against Inappropriate Interference in Law Enforcement for Political or Personal Aims
  • Ensure No One Is Above the Law

I’m especially grateful to the Brennan Center (to whom I give money) for providing me with the most hopeful and cheerful greeting I can share with everybody — and I snuck the full report into this…

Happy New Year!

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