What Democracy Looks Like
Here's what you need to know:
We need an accountable, inclusive, and ethical government in Washington. This eight-part report, What Democracy Looks Like, is CREW’s blueprint for getting there. From how to hold future presidents accountable, to how to combat the influence of money in politics, this in-depth report shows how the government can become a force for good in the lives of Americans.
Our nation has arrived at a moment of enormous consequence. We have the opportunity to reimagine our democracy, to establish new expectations for public officials, to remake the institutions that preserve government by the people and for the people.
Opportunities like this are rare. Five decades have passed since our nation last engaged in a wholesale effort to ensure that our federal government acts in the public interest, better reflects the interests of the electorate, and restrains the worst impulses of our polity and our politicians.
Meaningful reform begins with a sober assessment of what we have gotten wrong. For the last four years we have witnessed the unraveling of government as we knew it. We now know that the norms of ethical and effective governance that were built up over the decades since President Richard Nixon were far weaker than we expected. We witnessed a systematic effort to use the powers of government to advance private interests. We witnessed abuses of power including the obstruction of investigations critical to our national security and efforts to leverage the government for electoral advantage.
But the imperative to repair our democracy is not merely a reaction to the last four years. It is the product of a decades-long corrosion of the guardrails of our democracy, and also of the systematic exclusion of many voices that has plagued our democracy since its founding. The last four years have demonstrated how corruption not only undermines the integrity of the executive, but also effectively blunts the intricate system of checks and balances that is the beating heart of our constitutional structure. As we engage in the hard work of repairing weak institutions, ensuring that our laws are enforceable, and addressing the enormous power imbalances between the branches of government, we must embrace collective responsibility for our government’s flaws. We must also be guided by the core principle that government exists to serve all of the people, not just the wealthy and powerful. To engage in the hard work of repairing our laws, norms, and institutions is not to relitigate the past—it is to fight for our collective future.
We reject the cynic’s view that meaningful reform cannot occur in a time of partisan rancor or divided government. Delivering accountable, inclusive, and ethical government is not a partisan endeavor. There is no more opportune time than the end of one administration and the beginning of the next to acknowledge and address the need for change. The last time the United States engaged in a wholesale effort to restore our democracy was the fallout of President Nixon’s criminal and corrupt administration. Yes, the post-Watergate reforms were premised on the acknowledgement that Nixon’s administration had exposed weaknesses in our anticorruption and recordkeeping laws. But the impact of those laws was to constrain Nixon’s successors, not Nixon himself.
We believe that government can be a force for good in the lives of Americans, as it has been many times in the past. Despite the overwhelming problems we have experienced in recent years, we believe it is our duty to rebuild the checks and balances, institutions, and legal regimes that allow government to work fairly and effectively for all Americans. We know that creating a government that uses public resources for the public good, that identifies potential conflicts of interests and proactively avoids them, that holds its officials accountable for unethical and unlawful behavior, and that operates transparently is no small task. The changes required to achieve those ends are both structural and specific, and they are needed in all three branches of our government.
The reforms we propose would be nothing short of transformative for our democracy.
We begin in section 1 with a unique challenge in our constitutional system: reestablishing presidential accountability. That begins with reinforcing the core principle of our ethics system: wherever possible, we prevent public officials from even being in a position to make compromised decisions. Presidents must align their financial interests with the public interest. Presidential candidates must disclose detailed financial information, including tax returns, and if elected, they must divest assets that could lead to conflicts of interest. Financial interests are crucial, but personal and political motives can also corrupt a president’s decisions: we need to replace norms with enforceable rules to prevent nepotism and misusing law enforcement for personal, political ends. We also need to ensure that the mechanisms for investigating potential criminal conduct by the president are harder for the president and his political allies to manipulate.
In section 2, we shift focus to bolstering external checks on executive power to ensure that it is not abused. Congress and the courts need to adjust to a world in which the executive branch adopts a maximalist approach to its prerogatives. We propose a series of reforms that would restore Congress’s ability to conduct meaningful oversight, punish executive branch noncompliance with congressional investigations, and vindicate exercise of congressional prerogatives expeditiously in federal court. The goal of these proposals is not to embroil the president and Congress in endless conflict but rather to shift the balance of power back to a world in which the executive branch has serious incentives to cooperate with congressional requests rather than engage in obfuscation and delay until a new Congress is elected.
In section 3, we address a threat to our democracy that long predates President Donald Trump: the role of secret and corrupting influences in our government. A truly representative government requires the voices of our communities to be heard in elections and in the halls of power, not drowned out by wealthy special interests. We recommend changes that would reduce the corrupting influence of money in politics, including by imposing guardrails on those types of campaign spending that are particularly likely to lead to corruption and by resurrecting the system that would enforce these rules, which has largely ceased to function. We propose to increase the influence of regular Americans and create a more inclusive donor class by multiplying the impact of small donors, diluting the influence of special interests. Similarly, we recommend adding teeth to lobbying rules that lack a real enforcement mechanism and leave another opening for monied interests to undermine the will of the people.
In section 4, we explore how to restore the executive branch ethics regime. We propose strengthening the institutions charged with establishing and enforcing ethics rules. We propose rebuilding the nonpartisan civil service, and enhancing protections for whistleblowers. And, critically, we propose that our government adopt a divestiture regime to ensure agency heads cannot use their public offices for private gain.
In section 5, we recognize the critical role of transparency and records preservation in bolstering executive branch accountability and rebuilding the public trust. We propose reforming our public information access laws by expanding the scope of records that agencies must proactively disclose. We propose bolstering mechanisms for enforcing federal recordkeeping laws. And we propose restricting the government’s abuse of exemptions and privilege to withhold from public scrutiny information that could be politically harmful or embarrassing.
In section 6, we advocate that Congress establish a comprehensive ethics regime for itself. We propose sweeping improvements, such as creating an independent Senate ethics office, requiring members to divest assets that are likely to create conflicts of interest, and precluding members holding outside positions that could create conflicts. We propose subjecting Congress to recordkeeping and transparency requirements, including a requirement that they proactively disclose who is seeking to influence members and their staffs.
In section 7, we call for significant reforms to judicial ethics. We propose creating a single judicial ethics body that is charged with promulgating and enforcing judicial ethics requirements, expanding the disclosures that jurists must make about potential conflicts of interest, and applying ethics rules to every federal court—including the Supreme Court. And we propose bolstering public access to court proceedings and documents.
In section 8, we take a different tack. Acknowledging that the reforms laid out in sections 1 through 7 could prove insufficient to fully achieve an accountable, inclusive, and ethical government, we propose several structural reforms that could deliver lasting benefits to the strength of our institutions and to the vitality of our democracy. We address fundamental threats: our failure to ensure that every American can fully participate in our democracy; the anti-democratic way that votes translate to power; the crisis of legitimacy facing the judiciary; and decades of Supreme Court decisions that imperiled Congress’s ability to combat public corruption.
This package of reforms is undoubtedly ambitious, but its scale is proportionate to the need and congruous with the historical moment. Like generations before us, we have an opportunity to build a more perfect union. It is time to get to work.
This is what democracy looks like.