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H.R. 356 (115th): Protecting Our Democracy Act

Calls are mounting for an independent commission to investigate ties between Donald Trump, his campaign, and the Russian government. A bill from House Democrats is now beginning to attract a modicum of Republican support, with potentially more to sign on soon.

The context

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey after Comey reportedly requested increased funding for his bureau’s Russia probe. Then Trump revealed highly classified information provided to America by our ally Israel and shared it with the Russian government, which many consider a geopolitical foe.

This comes on top of confirmed Russian hacking and releasing files from the Democratic National Committee (but not their Republican counterparts), Attorney General Jeff Sessions lying about meetings with the Russian ambassador, and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s firing after misleading the vice president about contacts with the Russians.

What the bill does

The Protecting Our Democracy Act, H.R. 356, would establish an independent commission to investigate the Trump campaign’s and administration’s ties to the Russian government. There would be 12 members who cannot currently serve at any level of government: six chosen by Republican leaders, six chosen by Democratic leaders, ensuring an even bipartisan mix. They would have the power to issue subpoenas, and would be required to produce a final report within 18 months.

How is that different than what we have now?

For the past several months, the Senate and House have been conducting their own investigations into the Trump campaign’s and administration’s ties and the Russian government, but Republicans control both, since the committees are comprised of current politicians. In fact, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA22) stepped down from leading the House investigation after several incidents which suggested he was assisting the Trump Administration and not investigating it. Nunez himself is now under investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

Earlier this week, a special counsel was created to investigate any possible ties between the Trump campaign and administration and the Russian government, headed by former FBI Director Robert Mueller. The Special Counsel is different from the existing Congressional committees and the proposed independent commission because the position was appointed by — and remains answerable to — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a Trump administration appointee. In fact, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA12) said that she still supports creating an independent commission even after the special counsel was established.

What supporters say

Supporters argue the independent commission is the only way to truly drill down and reveal the whole truth.

“If we do nothing, we are telling the world our elections are open for influence by the most aggressive meddler,” House lead sponsor Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA15) said in a press release. “With 17 intelligence agencies agreeing that Russia interfered in our election, we most move quickly to have an independent, bipartisan, de-politicized commission to fully examine the circumstances, inform the public of its findings, and develop a plan to prevent this from ever happening again.”

What opponents say

Though it’s clear that the Russian government interfered in the American election, it remains unclear what if any direct collusion Trump or top people in his campaign had with the Kremlin. Many opponents believe that there was none, rending an independent commission expensive and unnecessary.

Trump himself said, “As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said an independent commission would “impede the work that’s currently being done.”

Odds of passage

The bill has attracted 199 cosponsors. That’s 197 House Democrats, the entire voting Democratic caucus, plus two Republicans: libertarian-leaning members Reps. Walter Jones (R-NC3) and Justin Amash (R-MI3). It has not yet received a vote in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA39)

Will it receive more Republican support to come? Trump’s firing of Comey has sparked Republican anger in a way that nothing else during Trump’s administration has thus far, with a few Republicans even beginning to talk about the possibility of impeachment.

Last updated May 22, 2017. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Jan 6, 2017.

Protecting Our Democracy Act

This bill establishes in the legislative branch the National Commission on Foreign Interference in the 2016 Election to examine any attempts or activities by the Russian government or other governments, persons or entities associated with such governments, or persons or entities within Russia to use electronic means to influence, interfere with, or sow distrust in elections for public office held in the United States in 2016.