‘It’s about all future presidents.’ Schiff on protecting democracy.

“We want to make sure that no president in the future of either party can flout the institutions of our democracy,” Rep. Adam Schiff told a Monitor Breakfast Sept. 23.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, speaks at the St. Regis Hotel on Sept. 23, 2021, in Washington.

Adam Schiff wears many hats. The California congressman is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He’s a member of the select House committee probing the Jan. 6 riot in the U.S. Capitol. He was lead manager of the first Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

But the issue Congressman Schiff is most fired up about, at the moment, is something called the Protecting Our Democracy Act (PODA). It’s a multi-faceted piece of legislation aimed at reining in the power of the president, with provisions that include: a strengthening of the “emoluments” clause of the Constitution aimed at cracking down on commercial payments to presidents; reining in the president’s pardon power; making it harder for presidents to fire inspectors general. 

PODA is focused squarely on the Trump presidency, and the ways in which he busted the norms of the nation’s top office – dangerously so, in the eyes of critics, including his continued unwillingness to acknowledge that he lost reelection. 

But, Mr. Schiff says, this package of measures is about more than just one president. 

“It’s about all future presidents,” Mr. Schiff told reporters at a breakfast hosted Thursday by The Christian Science Monitor. “And we want to make sure that no president in the future of either party can flout the institutions of our democracy the way we saw the last four years.”

Looking at the array of provisions, Mr. Schiff adds that “the most important may be a provision that expedites the enforcement of congressional subpoenas.” During his presidency, Mr. Trump vowed to stonewall oversight subpoenas, i.e., compulsory requests to executive branch officials for testimony and documents.

And therein lies an inherent challenge with PODA: It would empower Congress and rein in the powers of any president, including the current office-holder. Democrats have been negotiating the bill’s provisions with the Biden White House, to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Mr. Schiff said they’re still ironing out some aspects, but would not elaborate. 

It’s possible, for example, that Republicans will take control of the House after the 2022 midterm elections, and so beefing up congressional subpoena power for the second two years of President Joe Biden’s current term could be potentially problematic. 

Mr. Schiff said he wasn’t worried. “I’m confident we will maintain control of the House,” he said, despite the Democrats’ ultra-thin majority and a history of the president’s party losing House seats, sometimes a lot, in the midterms. 

Furthermore, the Democrats “don’t expect to have to use [these measures] against the current administration,” the congressman added. “But they also need to be mindful of what future Congresses might do.”

Following are more excerpts of Mr. Schiff’s comments, lightly edited for clarity:

Did Mr. Trump permanently change the presidency? 

That really depends on us. ... The Founders understood the danger of excessive factionalism, and they did everything they could to pit ambition against ambition, to try to overcome the deleterious impact of excessive factionalism. They knew it was a risk, and they knew it might not work. But it did work. We got through the last four years, but not without extraordinary damage.

You often mention the example of a foreign government renting rooms at a Trump hotel, and not even using them, just to curry favor with his administration. Are you suggesting that any president who owns a business should have to divest that asset? 

What we try to do is require both transparency and, as the Constitution requires, congressional approval so that we understand if there’s an emolument being paid, and if there is, that Congress either approves or disapproves of it. But if Congress disapproves of it, then it can’t be undertaken.

Anyone who wants to be the president of the United States needs to put the country first, not their business interests. And if they’re unwilling to do it, they shouldn’t run for president.

There is a real risk when people are not willing to put their investments, [their] assets, in a blind trust.

Are you concerned at all about the current president’s family members making money basically on the Biden name — Hunter Biden selling his art, the brothers doing business?

I think we apply the same standard to any president of either party. If any president's conduct violates the constitutional prohibition on emoluments, then there needs to be a mechanism to enforce it. And so this is one of the reasons why I say that this package of reforms is really party neutral, president neutral. It's a means of ensuring there's good government no matter who occupies that office.

How do you reconcile the Democrats’ aggressive policy agenda with their tenuous political standing, including a presidential job approval well below that of the last two Democratic presidents at this point in their tenure? 

We’ve become a much more partisan, polarized country. In light of that, progress has really been stalled for a long time. For the last several decades, we’ve seen this incredible disparity in income grow and grow and grow. We’ve seen the middle class under greater and greater stress. I think that propelled a lot of the xenophobic populism we witnessed over the last four years. And I do think it means that when you do have an opportunity to govern, you have to make use of that opportunity.

One thing that Republicans did show in the last four years is that when they control the instruments of power, they could use it to move the country quite radically. 

I don’t think we can meet an effort to move the country radically in the wrong direction with incrementalism in the right direction.

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