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Executive Actions to Restore Integrity and Accountability in Government

Take Action: The next president doesn't have to wait for Congress to prevent abuse of executive power. Here are 20 things the president can do to restore the integrity of government and strengthen our democracy.

Executive Actions
Mark Wilson/Getty

Foreword

The following proposals address rule of law, ethics in government, protections for government science, the appointment of accountable and qualified government officials, campaign finance, and voting and elections. Additional proposals are forthcoming, including to restore respect for Congress as a coequal branch of government, including Congress's oversight role. 

American democracy urgently needs renewal. In coming years, one of the great issues facing the country will be the presidency itself.

A half century ago, in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, laws and rules aimed to check the “Imperial Presidency.” Over the decades those limits eroded and then were finally cast off. The past three years have seen a refusal to honor oversight and a politicization of the executive branch. The president insists the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want.” The abuse of power in Lafayette Park was just the most visible, and most violent, example of shattered norms.

In this time of reckoning, a great task must be to reset the system of checks and balances and once again restore the presidency to its rightful place.

This volume includes the first set of recommendations for executive actions from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. These focus on enhancing ethics, transparency, and accountability; reining in abuse of executive power; and enhancing the role of expertise and science throughout government. Later proposals will include recommendations on empowering congressional oversight, curbing emergency powers, and renewing the process of criminal justice reform.

Congress must do its part to play its constitutional role. Courts, too, must step up.

But the president can lead, displaying what Alexander Hamilton called “energy in the executive,” this time not to grossly expand presidential power, but to restore the office to its rightful role.

We the people have a duty as well: to insist that our leaders commit to the Constitution and make renewal of our democracy not just one issue among many, but a central task for our nation.

Michael Waldman
President 
Brennan Center for Justice
July 2020
 

Introduction

Our democracy is at a critical juncture.

The Covid-19 pandemic has urgently underscored the need for a federal government that can focus on the public interest, is staffed by qualified professionals, and values expertise. Anything less will cost lives and put the nation’s recovery at risk.

Even before the pandemic hit, the guardrails that for much of our history ensured an honest, effective federal government had been gravely weakened. Meanwhile, widespread voter suppression, foreign interference, and the explosion of money in politics led many Americans to lose faith in our elections and political system — even before the pandemic posed new voting challenges.

A bipartisan task force of former senior government officials convened by the Brennan Center for Justice has proposed a comprehensive legislative agenda to restore the checks that previously constrained executive action and prevented abuses of executive power. Even more significant, as their first order of business after retaking the House of Representatives on a strong reform platform, congressional Democrats last year introduced and passed a landmark pair of bills to fix our democracy and give every American a voice: H.R. 1, the For the People Act, and H.R. 4, the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

While legislation is undoubtedly needed, the next president doesn’t have to wait for Capitol Hill to begin fixing the system. This report proposes 20 executive actions — executive orders, memoranda, and other directives — that would restore the integrity of government and strengthen our democracy. All are squarely within the president’s authority.

To rebuild the guardrails that prevent the abuse of executive power, the president should issue orders and directives focusing on four areas: preventing improper political interference in law enforcement, strengthening ethics and conflict-of-interest rules, supporting the integrity of science and research in policymaking, and promoting the appointment of qualified executive branch officials. In each of these areas, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have recognized constraints, but as recent abuses show, the unwritten norms of conduct that previously ensured integrity in government can too easily be cast aside. Formal written rules are needed.

And to make our elections fairer, the president should issue orders and directives focusing on three additional areas: shoring up campaign finance enforcement and other safeguards, bolstering election security, and expanding access to the voter rolls.

Together, these actions would signal a clear break from the abuses of the recent past and would be a significant step toward restoring faith in American democracy. By highlighting the urgency of these issues, they could also help weaken the gridlock that so often plagues Congress.

There is plenty of precedent for executive actions of this sort. Many of these actions track the approach taken in legislation introduced in Congress in recent years or in the legislative recommendations of the Brennan Center’s bipartisan task force.

The pandemic will eventually be overcome, but these realities will remain: All Americans, regardless of political orientation, want government officials to put the public interest ahead of their own political or personal gain. And all Americans want their voices and their votes to count. The next president has the power to move swiftly toward those goals.