I will be away traveling for two weeks, so the next essay will be published on April 24th.
Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Money in Politics and Transparency in Government”
April 7, 2017
“Transparency is not about restoring trust in institutions. Transparency is the politics of managing mistrust.”
Ivan Krastev (1965-)
Bulgarian Political Scientist
To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that democratic governments should be transparent. Elected leaders should be held accountable – and usually are, at the ballot box; but so should those who populate myriad agencies that have become increasingly powerful – dark recesses of the amorphous and expanding administrative state.
Total government spending – federal, state and local – accounts for more than $7 trillion. With so much money at stake, it is not surprising that corruption has become ubiquitous. It reminds one of Willie Sutton’s alleged response when asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.” The Capital, state houses and city halls are where the money is now. It’s no wonder that such symbols of democracy have become meccas for cronyism. As P.G. Wodehouse wrote about policemen in “A Gentleman of Leisure” in 2009, one could say about politicians today, “Some…are born grafters, some achieve graft, and some have graft thrust upon them.” Shining a light on government spending is a good thing. The public should know how their money is spent, and that has become the mission of organizations like OpenTheBooks.com. To borrow a line from today’s news stories, it helps ‘unmask’ those who have breached our trust.
Like most, I worry about the amount of money in political campaigns. There are no simple solutions. In 2012, a seat in the U.S. Senate cost, on average, $10.5 million, Four years later, the cost had risen to $19.4 million. In all, an estimated $6.8 billion was spent in 2016 political campaigns. I am not in favor of federally funded campaigns, as that would favor incumbents and impede free speech. But I am for changing election laws so that only individuals and sole proprietorships be allowed to contribute to political campaigns – with names disclosed. When businesses, unions and eleemosynary institutions contribute to political campaigns, the decisions are made by managements, not shareholders, employees, union members or financial supporters. In fact, many unwilling donors are effectively coerced into supporting someone they would rather not. I prefer contribution limits, but question whether that would violate rights of free speech. However, the glare from Justice Brandeis’ disinfecting sunlight should reduce spending on political campaigns. Transparency in this realm is a good thing, except when the information gained is used by the IRS to target those whose political philosophies are antithetical to their own, as Lois Lerner could tell us.
The quest for money has become so dire for those seeking reelection that a legislator must spend valuable hours devoted to raising funds. In contrast to past decades, today’s members of Congress typically arrive in Washington Monday evening or Tuesday morning, departing late Thursday, leaving ample time to dial for dollars. While being with one’s constituents is good, time away from Washington means relationships with other members are not developed – a factor` that has helped contribute to today’s political gridlock.
The concept of government transparency dates to the Enlightenment and, in part, led to the American and French Revolutions. It was revealed in freedom of the press, public meetings and public budgeting. Transparency allows citizens of a democracy to better control their government, reduce corruption and bribery, to understand how elected officials vote, and to protect whistleblowers. Critical to that process is a free and unencumbered press. But a press only serves the electorate when it is unbiased and independent – that they be true reporters, not apologists and supporters of ideologies, as is common today.
In recent times, with the advent of radio, television and now the internet, public meetings that historically were venues for truth-seeking have become forums for political opportunists. When a legislator questions witnesses, he is less interested in facts and more concerned about the next election. It has been said Senator Chuck Schumer never met a camera he didn’t like – and there are 99 other U.S. Senators who have the same affliction. Much of what legislators do is best done away from inquiring eyes and ears. Thus, we have seen the rise of the administrative state, peopled by bureaucrats, in agencies like the State Department, the EPA and the IRS, with no accountability to the taxpayers for whom they work. Transparency is reserved for those who thrive in the public eye – politicians who flourish on publicity. Writing in the September 2014 issue of The Atlantic, in an article titled “The Transparency Trap,” David Frum warned of this phenomenon: “We have had campaign-finance reform, and reform of the seniority system in Congress and endless rounds of anticorruption measures in the federal government. Calls for ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ have meant more administrative and judicial supervision. In turn, power flows to impersonal institutions (agency review boards, courts, and so on) and away from elected leaders who can get things done – and who can be punished at the ballot box for delay and disappointment.”
Little that’s important today gets done on the floors of the two chambers. Most of it is for show, as TV cameras are to legislators as catnip is to cats. They amplify the partisanship we see in Congress. When on the floor, the legislator is on stage. Her audience are not fellow members, but those who put her in office. She is less likely to work for the good of the nation, and more likely to satisfy the demands of her narrow constituency. Consider health care and the Freedom Caucus. The mission of C-Span, created by the cable television industry in 1979 as a public service, is to make government more open to the American public. However, the unintended consequence has been to put legislators in constant campaign mode, playing to the noisiest in their Parties. Public hearings were once forums for people to offer opinions, vent frustrations and to better understand issues. They still are in small towns, but in Washington they have devolved into media circuses where Representatives and Senators use their airtime not to better understand what is being investigated, but to speak to constituents at home, looking for “high fives” – free advertising for expensive elections. As Tina Brown once said, “We live in a culture of destructive transparency.”
Increased transparency in government has not translated into better government; in fact, one might argue, the opposite. Transparency was demanded, as Ivan Krastev made clear in the rubric at the top of this essay, because people had lost trust in their government. But, has it worked? While a recent Rasmussen poll of “likely” voters saw approval for Congress rise from 11% last July to 25% in February, the number still suggests that 75% disapprove. A Pew Research survey of trust in government, conducted in 2015, showed a mere 19% of Americans trusted government, versus 73% in 1958.
Transparency is tricky. It is critical to a well-functioning democracy. But we also need understand that the making of good legislation, like sausage, requires many ingredients/opinions. A final bill never gives 100% satisfaction to all, for it requires compromise, give-and-take, and an understanding that the needs of the nation supersede individual wants. In that regard, I would like to see the cameras removed – for at least part of the time – so that legislators might work together, away from that omnipresent lens, and with less focus on raising money. They might find there is legislation they can support in a bi-partisan fashion. They might even find they like one another. After all, we the people represent ideologies across a broad spectrum – we are not bunched at the extremes. And, believe it or not, some of my best friends are Democrats!