The Founders knew from colonial experience that power corrupts. This is precisely why they established a system of checks and balances. The presidential appropriation of power is not a threat to one or the other of the parties, but rather a threat to the separation of powers and therefore to the whole of the constitutional order.
The proactive scrutiny of the White House by Congress is not new, but it is urgent. The United States has experienced periods of soul-searching and reaffirmation of the balance of power. Excesses must be challenged and fundamental constitutional agreements must be renewed. Our country did it in the Nixon era, after Watergate, and today presents another opportunity.
At such historic times, Congress exercised its oversight responsibility through hearings to denounce abuses of power and to propose legislation to restore constitutional balance.
In the early 1970s, Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) co-chaired a special committee on national emergencies, which sought to take stock and limit the president’s powers to declare emergencies. Our co-author, Senator Gary Hart, served on a related select committee co-chaired by Church on government intelligence operations, which included domestic political espionage under Nixon.
Based on the committee’s findings, Church warned that the existing emergency powers “were like a loaded pistol lying around the house, ready to be fired by any trigger-happy president who might come along.”
During the post-Watergate period, Congress and Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter worked together to reaffirm government accountability. For example, Congress passed the National Emergencies Act of 1976 to provide congressional control over delegated emergency presidential powers. The Inspector General Act of 1978 created a new type of executive oversight with the establishment of a series of new oversight bodies.
Over the past year, we have seen alarming signs that these protections have eroded. Church’s warning about the “loaded gun” remains valid and explains the ongoing bipartisan push in Congress.
House leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, are set to introduce the Protecting Our Democracy Act, a set of post-Watergate-style reforms that would restore restrictions on executive power, such as preventing abuse of the pardon power or politicizing the Justice Department, protecting Congressional power over the stock market and federal employee whistleblowers, and more.
Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Also partnered with the National Security Powers Act, which would require congressional approval for the president to declare national emergencies. , carry out arms sales and use military force. The bill would be the most important recalibration of the balance of power between the president and Congress in decades. In particular, he adopts many ideas that Sen. Joe Biden litigated in the 1980s.
These bills are the right approaches at the right time. They should have bipartisan support. Their goal is one that Americans of all political stripes can support: the survival of our democratic form of government.
But legislative prospects crucially depend on support from the White House – which has been particularly silent on these initiatives. Biden entered the Senate in 1973 at a time of peril to our democracy. He entered the White House during another such crisis. Like few other presidents, Biden would have to hear the bugle of history to use his bully chair to preserve our republic.