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Accountability makes good government

Lee H. Hamilton | 3/13/2019, 10:01 p.m.
As various House committees gear up for a season of investigations and hearings on President Trump and his administration, a ...

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.