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Can the U.S. Avoid More Political Violence?

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Biden receiving his second vaccine shot yesterday in Newark, Del.


The violent end to Trump’s presidency only puts an exclamation point on the run-on sentence of ethically questionable behavior displayed throughout his four-year term.

And as he leaves office, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are already at work on ethics changes that aim to prevent some of his most egregious behavior from becoming normalized.

Our reporter Elizabeth Williamson wrote an article detailing the status of such an overhaul and how likely it is to be enacted early in Biden’s term. Elizabeth agreed to answer a few questions about the topic for us.

How much of this is about putting into writing things — like presidents releasing their tax returns — that had been considered standard political practice, but that were never enshrined in official policy before Trump began violating them?

The Trump administration’s scandals revealed two things. First, how many norms of presidential behavior were not enshrined in law, but rather a matter of tradition, enforced by political shaming. For instance, the idea that presidents disclose their tax returns, or that they not funnel taxpayer money into their family businesses.

Second, the departing president exposed the need to update the last major ethics reform bill to have made it through Congress: the now-creaky Ethics in Government Act of 1978, passed after Watergate. Those reforms came in response to President Richard Nixon’s use of the Justice Department to pursue his political enemies. Trump’s yen for doing the same suggests a tuneup is in order.

A willingness to fire inspectors general was one of Trump’s most obvious ways of flouting ethics concerns. How would the current proposals step up protections for inspectors general in executive agencies?

Actually, the I.G. protection component of the reform package has received early action in the House, according to Aaron Scherb of Common Cause, one of the watchdog groups pushing for these changes.

On Jan. 5, the eve of the Capitol riot, the bipartisan Inspector General Protection Act — introduced by Representatives Ted Lieu, Democrat of California, and Jody Hice, Republican of Georgia — passed the House by voice vote.

The act would help protect inspectors general from retaliation, for example by requiring the executive branch to notify Congress before placing an I.G. on administrative leave. And it would help ensure that vacant I.G. slots are filled promptly by requiring the executive to provide Congress an explanation for failing to nominate an I.G. after an extended vacancy.

Biden is about to be a Democratic president with a Democratic Congress. Is there any real concern about whether officials in the party may be unenthusiastic about passing strict regulations, when Democrats now call the shots?

Historically, presidents are reluctant to give up any expansion of power enjoyed by their predecessor administrations. But given the titanic ethical blast holes that some of these proposals aim to plug, like prohibiting presidential self-pardons or preventing a sitting cabinet secretary from using an official trip to make a political campaign speech, Democrats expect any quibbles by the incoming White House to be relatively minor.

Republican support for the changes is less clear. Though some may jump at the chance to rein in a Democratic president, the worry is that they’ll be afraid to support reforms that could be interpreted by Trump or his supporters as criticism of him.

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