Subscribe RH Love

We need to safeguard the ‘public’ in public office

by | Jun 7, 2017 | Opinion

By Lee Hamilton

 

Our representative democracy depends on voters developing discriminating judgments about policies and politicians. They can’t do that if vital information is withheld from them.

For the last few years, I’ve been keeping a file of clippings about the erosion of transparency and candor in government. I’m sorry to report that it’s getting rather full.

This is not a good thing. Public officials should feel strongly obliged to do their business in an open and upfront manner. When you hold public office, the presumption ought always to be in favor of the people’s right to know what’s going on. If you don’t want to be open to scrutiny, then the burden surely has to be on you to say specifically why that’s necessary.

This doesn’t seem to be a commonly held view in Washington these days, though the precedent for non-disclosure is bipartisan. News conferences have been rare for Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump. During the George W. Bush administration the NSA was wiretapping Americans’ overseas communications based on legal justifications that were withheld from the public. Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department pushed to compromise a fundamental principle under which federal agencies made public their rationale for how they interpreted and administered the law.

The current administration has made policy-making more secretive than ever. President Trump refuses to release his tax returns, making it impossible for Americans to know whether his actions also happen to affect his financial bottom line. There have been constant attempts to draw a curtain over possible ties between Trump aides and Russia. The secretary of state talks about shifting policy toward North Korea — but gives no indication of what that policy is. The President has promised to rip up the Iran nuclear agreement, but has not done it and doesn’t tell us what his policy toward Iran is.

Vice President Pence has said all options are on the table with regard to Syria and that its conduct “cannot be tolerated,” but the administration is mum on what that actually means for strategy. Indeed, when asked his Syria intentions by reporters, President Trump responded, “I’m not going to tell you.”

This attitude is especially worrisome when it comes to foreign policy — where robust public debate over policy serves our national interests. Yet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo for key meetings without a press accompaniment, went for weeks without holding a press conference, and has yet to deliver a speech outlining U.S. policy in any detail. He says, “I’m not a big media press access person.” Yet, he is officially our face both at home and abroad on relations with allies and rivals, and we don’t actually know what policies he’s pursuing.

There are legitimate secrets and reasons for non-disclosure, of course, and I’m confident that most Americans understand that they’re sometimes necessary. When public officials state occasionally that they cannot speak to a given question and lay out the reasons why, people tend to accept it.

All too often, though, classification and obfuscation are used to avoid debate and scrutiny for political reasons — or to protect bureaucrats or public officials whose actions simply could not hold up under the light of rigorous scrutiny. That’s why leaks, as much as presidents and cabinet members decry them, can be so important: that’s how we learned about the Watergate scandal; about the sale of weapons to Iran in Iran-Contra; about the torture we conducted at Abu Ghraib; about the NSA’s spying. And it’s why financial disclosure at every level, from the presidency to city hall, matters.

For in the end, people need to know what policymakers are doing and why. And policy makers need to respect the interest and the intelligence of the voters, and heed their obligation to the voter for candor and disclosure. Our representative democracy depends on voters developing discriminating judgments about policies and politicians, and they can’t do it if vital information is withheld from them. In a democracy like ours, it’s the height of disrespect for public officials to keep their actions and thinking cloaked.

There’s no reason for the public to brook such disrespect. We need to demand open communication, straight talk, and more complete disclosure of information. We need to expect that our public officials will do their business in public — and that if they can’t, they’ll explain clearly to us why not. This is our democracy. Let’s treat it that way.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

 

For more columns each week subscribe to our print and e-edition here.

Subscribe RH Love

0 Comments

Order photos

Related News

Pitch made for new power plants

Pitch made for new power plants

Lt. Gov Dan Patrick joined with the world’s largest investment firm to pitch investors on building natural gas power plants in Texas at a summit held last week in Houston. Patrick and BlackRock CEO Larry Fink shared the stage as they attempted to persuade investors to...

read more
Dewey or don’t we?

Dewey or don’t we?

On Christmas Eve 2008, there were just three of us working in the office. Well, technically, there was one of us working, the other two were there. A couple of the young ladies on staff either didn’t have enough vacation time built up or they were saving it for...

read more
A range of options

A range of options

My great grandparents lived on a homestead. They cooked on a wood stove. Most of us today have no idea how good we’ve got it. For my great grandparents’ generation, remodeling the kitchen meant picking a different place to stack the wood. When I was growing up in...

read more
A word from our sponsors

A word from our sponsors

Commercials used to be great. They used to be an art form. They used to be fun. Today’s advertising is boring in comparison. Television commercials were something to which I looked forward when I was a kid. Some were better developed and more interesting than the...

read more
Quakes prompt officials to limit disposal wells

Quakes prompt officials to limit disposal wells

The Texas Railroad Commission has suspended nearly two dozen permits that allow oil and gas companies to inject saltwater into the ground, which regulators say has contributed to increased earthquakes of greater magnitude in West Texas. The Austin American Statesman...

read more
The Walking Dad

The Walking Dad

It’s obvious that I have to wait to die until after everyone else in my home goes. Otherwise, every light in the house will be left on for all of eternity. My dad used to say that I could leave on all of the lights whenever I started paying the bills. That time has...

read more
Small town living: some leave, some come back

Small town living: some leave, some come back

Small town Ashdown, Arkansas. John Moore You learn things when you grow up in a small town. Things you don’t learn if you grow up anywhere else. Things that are special. I was born in a small town. But I didn’t stay. I left for the same reasons other folks leave their...

read more
There’s ‘snow’ ice cream quite like it!

There’s ‘snow’ ice cream quite like it!

It didn’t snow much in Ashdown, Arkansas in the 1960s. It doesn’t snow there much now. But when it did, and when it does, kids there know exactly what to do. Beg their moms to make snow ice cream. It was my mother who showed my sister and me that you could make ice...

read more
Texas Supreme Court hears abortion ban challenge

Texas Supreme Court hears abortion ban challenge

The Texas Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in a case that could decide whether medical exceptions to the state’s abortion ban are written clearly enough to protect pregnant women who face serious health risks, the Austin American-Statesman reported. The 22...

read more
Order photos