Bob Bauer and Jack Goldsmith

The First Order of Business

July 30, 2021

A fully realized program of reforming the Presidency will require sustained attention—with buy-in from both major political parties and support from civil society. Early successes in the coming months are key to showing that bipartisan support with Presidential leadership is feasible and momentum can be built for more reforms in the future.

Of the many reforms we hope to accomplish, a select few that meet the requirements for broad acceptance and therefore political feasibility in the near term are:

War Powers. There is both Democratic and Republican support in Congress for restoring constitutional limits on Presidential authority to deploy military force abroad. In the near term, the goals should be:

  • Repealing the 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF),
  • Updating with appropriate limits the 2001 AUMF, and
  • The Department of Justice’s rescission of 2001 and 2002 “War on Terror” legal opinions claiming expansive war-making powers for the President.

Emergency Powers. There is bipartisan agreement that, for too long and with inadequate controls and accountability, Congress has conferred on the President an array of emergency powers. Reform now needs to focus on:

  • Congressional review of all 123 statutory emergency authorizations now, and reforms to tighten emergency criteria and the process for renewals; and
  • Reform of the Insurrection Act, clarifying the basis for and accountability of the President for the deployment of troops to address domestic violence or disorder that State authorities are unable or unwilling to address, and imposing time limits on any such authorities.

Safeguards against the Politicization of the Department of Justice and the Pardon Process. The principle of law enforcement independent of political pressures and influence is well established, but, as the nation learned in the “Watergate” episode, it has again become clear that the laws and norms protecting independence require strengthening. Reform now should be directed to:

  • Reaffirming and clarifying Justice Department regulations and related norms against political bias in law enforcement;
  • Reforming federal law to expressly bar the President from obstructing justice for self-protection, protection of family members, and to interfere in elections;
  • Checking abuses of the pardon power by clearly subjecting the President for criminal liability if he or she acts to obstruct justice or accept a bribe through the offer or exercise of the pardon power, and
  • Prohibiting self-pardons.

Vacancy Reform. The federal legal framework enabling Presidents to fill vacancies in senior executive branch positions while preserving the constitutional requirement for Senate confirmation is in disrepair. Reform is needed to:

  • Further limit the circumstances in which a President may fill a Senate vacancy with non-Senate-confirmed officials and limit the time periods for temporary appointments.
  • Provide special rules for the filling vacancies in the position of Inspector General, to require the appointment of either Senate-confirmed inspector general from another agency, or a senior official within the agency who has served there for more than three years.
  • Establish mechanisms for enforcement of these reforms, including a requirement for agency and department reporting to Congress to ensure that vacancies are filled on a more timely basis and tying agency funding to compliance with this requirement.

While these select reforms represent only a part of what our project hopes to accomplish, we see them as the most transformative reforms that can garner widespread bipartisan support. We are dedicated to being as pragmatic as we are energetic in turning these proposals into law. We are also keenly aware that political circumstances are ever-changing, and as parts of our full reform program become more salient, our priorities will shift to match these circumstances.