Editorial September 12, 2014

TheWeekinCongress.com

Editorial

““Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives?”

The Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United vs FEC ruled that restricting campaign contributions violates the contributor’s First Amendment rights of free speech under the Constitution.

There were two sounds that came from that decision; one was a clarion bell that opened the checkbooks of those with much money, including corporations and individuals with loads of money. The other sound was the dull thud heard by those who at least sensed, if they did not see clearly, that the decision privileged those with money against those who have little or none.

Such matters are difficult for the general public to have detailed knowledge of, the Constitution itself being very clear and very obscure at the same time along with other details of how that new money could and could not be spent, but there was a common thread of understanding among those affected that there was a shift of power away from democracy under one man, one vote and that moneyed interest now have a greater chance of electing anyone they favor over others.

That instinctual response is consistent with at least the opinion of James Madison who wrote in the Federalist Papers #57 “Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscurity and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States. They are to be the same who exercise the right in every State of electing the corresponding branch of the legislature of the State.”

We have seen what the Citizens United decision brought us; hundreds of millions of dollars pumped into political action committees (PACs) to support favored candidates. That is a demonstration of the First Amendment right Citizens United protects but it can only be exercised by a small group of Americans who have such enormous financial resources and who use that right to support or attack candidates all over the US, not just in the district or state in which the donors live. Couple that ad buying advantage wealthy donors now have with a willingness to simply provide false facts about opposed or supported candidates and the election process becomes little more than a poker game with a stacked deck.

While the Supreme Court may very well have interpreted the Constitution accurately in its Citizens United decision regarding First Amendment rights it is clearly in contrast to what Madison writes and in the face of the common thread most believe; that we may have more or less resources than someone else but when it comes to electing officials we are all equal because we all have one vote. That common thread is critical to all Americans ability to feel empowered and dignified as a full participant in the Republic and it is that common thread that the Supreme Court has severed.

Why Government Openness Matters

By Lee H. Hamilton

“on most issues we’re better off if the American people know what’s going on.”

Hamilton

Hamilton

One of the fundamental lessons of the 9/11 tragedy was that our government carried a share of blame for the failure to stop the attacks. Not because it was asleep at the switch or ignorant of the dangers that Al Qaeda posed, but because the agencies charged with our safety did not share what they knew, either up and down the chain of command or with each other. The attacks were preventable with shared information.

This insight was highlighted in the report of the 9/11 Commission — on which I served — and became a key driver of the reforms instituted by the U.S. intelligence community over the last dozen years. Within the government, there are plenty of people who now understand that sharing information and using it to inform planning and debate produces better policy: rooted in facts, well-vetted, and more robust.
So it’s worrisome that today it seems harder than ever to know what our government is doing, and not just when it comes to national security. Secrecy and a widespread failure to share information both within government and with the American people remain major barriers to the effective operation of representative democracy.
This unwillingness to be open often arises for the wrong reasons. In many cases, officials claim they’re trying to prevent harm to the national security, but actually want to avoid embarrassing themselves or to sidestep the checks and balances created by our Constitution.
So secretiveness infiltrates government culture. The White House has become remarkably adept at making sure the President rarely faces an unscripted or uncomfortable moment — a trend that’s been building for decades. The government classifies far too many documents at too high a cost, to the point where vital information is inadequately protected because of the sheer volume of needlessly classified information.
Federal agencies often keep information from inspectors general, our nation’s appointed watchdogs. They do their best to put strict limits on what Congress finds out; I often get the impression that the executive branch would prefer an uninformed Congress to one knowledgeable enough to press high-ranking officials, including the President, on their understanding of policy challenges, the steps they’re taking to address them, and the articulation of the policy. Congress — ostensibly the people’s branch of government — all too often lets the Executive get away with it.
Failing to share information makes us weaker. It enfeebles congressional oversight, which is one of the cornerstones of representative democracy and which, when aggressively carried out by fully informed legislators, can strengthen policy-making. It makes it far more difficult to maintain our system of checks and balances. It exacerbates mistrust between branches of government and between the government and the American people. And it chips away at the foundation of our system, which rests on a public that is well-informed about what government is doing and why.
Without that information, we are poorer in our ability to exercise discriminating judgment on the conduct of policy and of politicians, and we lose our advantage over authoritarian societies: the spread of knowledge to people searching for a solution to our society’s challenges and problems.
In fact, if you look at the public discussion of any number of recent controversies — Benghazi, NSA surveillance, the IRS rulings, reform of the VA, the subsidies going to solar manufacturer Solyndra — what’s clear is that as more information became available, resolving the problem became more straightforward. And failing to share information can ensnare an administration in worse problems than it was trying to avoid. Iran-contra, Watergate, the Pentagon Papers: each of these had a major impact on our constitutional system, and each was characterized by efforts to suppress information.
In short, on most issues we’re better off if the American people know what’s going on. Full disclosure doesn’t produce good government by itself, but it makes it more likely.
To be sure, on occasion secrecy is legitimate and necessary, but representative government — with its systems of checks and balances — cannot function properly without openness and the presumption should always be in its favor. If officials want to keep information secret, they should bear the burden of explaining why. I hope you’ll join me in pushing for an era of openness in government.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.