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Toledo Legal News - Editorial List Table

 

Accountability makes good government

 

As various House committees gear up for a season of investigations and hearings on President Trump and his administration, a lot of people are worried that progress on the nation’s challenges will grind to a halt. I would argue just the opposite: the wheels of government are turning in favor of accountability.

Our system rests squarely on the notion that government officials — whether elected or appointed — need to be accountable to the people they govern. They are responsible for their behavior, their decisions, and the policies they support. They are answerable for their use — and misuse — of the funds and resources they’re given.

They are — or ought to be — just as accountable for the remedies they fail to pursue as for the actions they do take. Accountability safeguards our Constitution, our laws, and our democracy.

Which is why the weakening of accountability in our system over the past few decades ought to worry all Americans. It has become very difficult, for instance, to question a president — a problem that preceded the current occupant of the White House. Presidential press conferences, which once were free-wheeling affairs at which presidents faced sustained questioning from reporters well-versed in their policies, are barely held these days. They are passing from view — and President Trump’s habit of using Twitter to communicate over the heads of people who ask hard questions may well set the course for the future.

In fact, politicians and bureaucrats at all levels have become quite skilled at avoiding accountability. During my years in Congress, I considered it a key task to find out who was responsible for particular decisions — whether the administration was Republican or Democrat. It was difficult then, and has become more so with time.

Meanwhile, it has been reassuring over the past two years to see several national news outlets step up their scrutiny of public officials in Washington, but it remains true that overall there is less investigative journalism than there once was.

Which is a problem because it’s simply human nature to want to avoid being held responsible. If policies are going well and are well received in the polls and by the public, of course, officials fight to take their place in line and garner the credit. If something goes wrong, they fight to get out of the line.

In our system, every official has to answer to some other official. This is a reassuring quality in a governmental structure — but only if officials actually exercise their responsibilities. That’s why the media are so important as a backstop.

Which raises another issue. A lot of players ought to be exercising oversight: members of Congress, the government’s inspectors general, the media — we even have an entire agency, the Government Accountability Office, dedicated to the task. But for them to do their work, the system also needs transparency. Almost every day you see signs of officials hiding what they do from the public — often without real merit.

I’ve always been quite skeptical of the argument that we ought not let this or that piece of information become public. National security is often invoked, or trade secrets, or some other rationale for drawing a veil over the government’s activities. Even when citizens or reporters file Freedom of Information requests, these can be ignored, or turned down.

The problem with this, of course, is that it’s anti-democratic. How are we supposed to make reasoned decisions about who and what we want to see in our government if we don’t know what’s going on and who’s responsible for it?

Perhaps the most famous hallmark of Harry Truman’s tenure as president was the motto he placed on his desk: “The buck stops here.” There’s a reason why it’s so famous, and why people still consider it a standard they wish other politicians would set for themselves.

Americans want officials who will step up and take responsibility for their decisions. They want political leaders who will hold themselves accountable to the public. And they want to see public officials exercise the responsibility handed them by the Constitution to hold others accountable. That the House is moving to do so is not a detour from governing; it’s the essence of good government.

About Lee Hamilton and the Center for Representative Government

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar of the IU Hamilton Lugar 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.

The Center on Representative Government is a non-partisan, educational institution that has developed an extensive array of free civics education resources and activities to improve the public’s understanding of the role of representative government, to strengthen civic engagement, and to teach the skills that are essential to sustaining our form of representative democracy.

The Center was established in January of 1999. The idea for the Center grew from former Congressman Lee Hamilton's recognition during his time in the U.S. House of Representatives of the need to improve the public’s understanding of Congress – its role in our large and remarkably diverse country, its strengths and its weaknesses, and its impact on the lives of ordinary people every day.

At the core of the Center’s work is the belief that our nation’s great experiment of representative democracy has served us well for more than 200 years, but it fundamentally rests on an informed electorate that understands our system of government and participates in our civic life.

Our vision is to have an informed and engaged citizenry that will preserve our democratic principles.

Lee H. Hamilton, Center on Representative Government

On campus speech: thanks, Mr. President — but no thanks

 

At first hearing, President Trump's recent announcement of a planned presidential order to mandate free speech on college campuses might seem to be just what free expression advocates would support.

However, regrettably, they should not. Keep reading, please.

Taking a shortcut through the First Amendment in the name of free speech is not a good idea — and that's what Trump's approach will be, no matter how admirable the stated goal of encouraging and protecting the rights of all in university communities to speak freely.

Trump's approach is to tie freedom of speech to federal funding for universities: "If they want our dollars, and we give it to them by the billions...Free speech. If they don't, it will be costly. That will be signed soon," he told the Conservative Political Action Conference annual convention.

Conservatives have long complained — in my view, with justification at some higher-ed institutions — that liberal academics have created an atmosphere where views of faculty or outside speakers from "the right" are unwelcome. In recent years, a number of high-profile, controversial speakers claiming conservative credentials have been heckled, harassed or prevented from speaking.

In 2017, conservative author Ann Coulter canceled a speech at the University of California, Berkeley, amid fears of violent student protest. At Texas Southern University, Houston, a speech by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, was cancelled because of student opposition.

In announcing his initiative last weekend, Trump cited a Feb. 19 incident in which a man recruiting for a conservative group was punched by one of two men who confronted him at UC Berkeley. But even that example raises questions about how Trump's proposed "carrot and stick" approach would work and whether it is appropriate there or elsewhere.

Neither the recruiter nor his assailant was reported to be connected to the university. The attacker was arrested, as existing law provides, regardless of where the punch was thrown. Presumably, local justice will run its course without need of a federal, campus-focused "back-up."

How would — and should — a university be held accountable for the actions of non-university persons? How many incidents, and what kinds of incidents, must occur to rise to the level of a "free speech penalty" that will punish a campus community of thousands or tens of thousands of students? One, two, 10? Who decides and by what measure? Does a punch count 10 times more on the "penalty tally" than a shouted insult?

And what if the punch takes place on a private university campus? Do we want government bureaucrats imposing "free speech" rules on those institutions now constitutionally outside the government's purview?

Conservatives and liberals alike would historically seem to stand together in opposing government intervention or control over such private enterprises. We ought not hysterically surrender such rights without considering what might be the next "justified" need to trample the independence of non-public colleges and universities.

Another, larger question: Just how widespread is the conflict over conservative speakers, or the entire issue of liberal versus conservative campus speech conflicts? In recent years, as the Freedom Forum Institute has gathered information, made campus visits and convened discussions nationwide, a few observations have emerged: At the vast majority of colleges and universities, speakers of all stripes come and go without objection — the larger battle is not student protest, but student distraction and disinterest regardless of subject matter.

Perhaps 50 campuses out of 4,000-plus higher-education institutions have been embroiled in controversies that directly engage free speech. Granted, in that small group, a number are high-profile or highly-respected institutions. Worrisome, but not worthy of a blanket government surveillance and review system that would be required to fairly impose such draconian penalties on entire campuses for what are likely the actions of a few.

Rather, let us say openly and clearly that colleges should be held by all of us to the high standard of being marketplaces of ideas. Make that criterion one when considering what college to attend or where to make an alumni donation.

Some would say academic freedom means the right to evaluate and exclude some ideas — to focus on the proven and accepted. However, that can quickly morph into intellectual ossification — the collegiate equivalent of what the French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville warned in the 1830s would be the greatest danger to the United States' new and innovative commitment to free expression and democracy: The "tyranny of the majority," in which alternative views would cease to be heard.

Let us follow principles already set out by some leaders in the academic world that decry overt or hidden censorship and disavow the false gods of safety, security and "ideas just too dangerous to be heard."

As to the latter, yes, there are indeed dangerous ideas and inflammatory speakers with no goal other than self-promotion. But it is a futile and dangerous tactic to attempt to suppress a bad idea or arbitrarily extinguish a flame-throwing speaker — particularly in the Internet Age.

Better to propose a new idea and listen to anyone with ideas worth considering — on or off campus.

Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at gpolicinski@freedomforum.org, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.

Gene Policinski, Freedom Forum Institute

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