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Rep. Schiff on the Protecting Our Democracy Act

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The right to vote, to free and fair elections, which lead to a peaceful transfer of power - they're at the heart of any functioning democracy, and they have been under siege here in the U.S. So how best to protect them and to hold to account those who seek to subvert these rights? We're going to talk through a couple of developments in the news on this front, starting with the latest twist in the inquiry into the January 6 attack on the Capitol. And we're going to do that with Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of California. Congressman Schiff, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ADAM SCHIFF: Thank you. It's great to be with you.

KELLY: So you sit on the select committee that is investigating January 6, which now says it is prepared to hold Mark Meadows - this is former President Trump's chief of staff - in criminal contempt for not complying with your subpoena to testify. Have you had a response yet from Mr. Meadows or from his attorney?

SCHIFF: Well, his response was to fail to show up for his deposition today. We have no shortage of letters from counsel and had no shortage of discussions with his counsel. And the perplexing thing is that after producing documents to the committee, which they clearly acknowledge are not privileged, after writing a book where he discusses January 6 in conversations with the president, which, presumably, if he wrote in his book, he can talk to Congress about it. He made a decision, for whatever reason, to refuse to appear. And I think he leaves us no choice but to hold him in criminal contempt.

KELLY: And what is the timing on this? I imagine you are worried about witnesses, whether it's Mark Meadows or others, running out the clock - they don't cooperate, and what impact that has on your committee's ability to get a full picture of what happened on January 6 and in the days leading up to it.

SCHIFF: We are concerned about the former president and those around him and their propensity to use the courts for purposes of delay. And we see that again, kind of a repetition of the stonewall-all-subpoenas approach the former president took during his tenure in office. Nonetheless, we have moved with great speed to hold people in contempt where that's appropriate. The Justice Department...

KELLY: And just what is the timing on that, if I may? How quickly can you hold someone in contempt?

SCHIFF: We intend to continue to move very swiftly. And even though the courts have been responsible for delay - and some courts are moving with great expedition - the fact that the Justice Department is prosecuting already one of the witnesses who refused to appear, Steve Bannon, sent a message to other witnesses that the rule of law was now being enforced.

KELLY: Let me turn you to the Protecting Our Democracy Act. You are a co-sponsor. House is expected to vote on it this week. The act tackles, among other things, abuses of presidential power. Why do you believe it's important to get this legislation passed and passed now?

SCHIFF: This package of reforms is the product of now probably about a year and a half of work that began with the conversation I had with the speaker about the need for our own post-Watergate reforms, the need to build back what had been, we thought, inviolate norms of behavior in office, which Donald Trump demonstrated were not inviolate at all, could be violated with impunity. And so we are trying to codify protections of our democratic institutions, codify protections for the Justice Department so its independence is not intruded upon.

One of the most important provisions is along the lines that we've been discussing, which would expedite enforcement of congressional subpoenas. We try to curb the abuse of the pardon power and provide an enforcement mechanism for the emoluments clause, stiffen penalties for violating the Hatch Act. This is our effort as the Congress responded to the abuses of Richard Nixon to protect the country from any future president who had abused the power of his office in that way.

KELLY: You just referenced Watergate, and I was struck by a comment that one of your co-sponsors made. This is your fellow California Democrat, Zoe Lofgren, who said, "the landmark laws put into place after the Watergate scandal in large part worked well until a sitting president showed little regard for the safeguards designed to protect our democracy and the rule of law," end quote. Which I suppose prompts the question, what gives you confidence your bill or any bill might reign in the next sitting president? If they can ignore one set of laws, why not this one?

SCHIFF: Well, this has, I think, more powerful enforcement mechanisms. But you are exactly right on one fundamental point, and that is these laws and our entire Constitution don't work if the power the people charged with living up to the provisions of those laws and constitutions don't inform their judgments by ideas of right and wrong if members of Congress don't take their oath of office seriously.

KELLY: You have a bunch of co-sponsors on this act, not a single Republican. Did you try to get a Republican co-sponsor?

SCHIFF: Yes. And it's still my hope that we may get Republican votes when we take this up tomorrow. It will be a test, I think, of the degree to which...

KELLY: Sorry, your hope - is there confirmed Republican support for this right now or are you going to try to pass it on party lines?

SCHIFF: We will take it up and pass it by any means necessary, but it is my hope, although I don't have commitments from Republicans that they'll vote for it, but many of the provisions in the reform package are based on Republican legislative proposals.

KELLY: Adam Schiff, Democrat from California, chair of the House Select Committee on Intelligence and sponsor of the Protecting Our Democracy Act. Thank you.

SCHIFF: Thank you.

KELLY: And since we spoke with Congressman Schiff, Mark Meadows has filed a lawsuit against the January 6 committee, its members and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.