We need to safeguard the ‘public’ in Public Office
By Lee H. Hamilton
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. If they don’t want to be scrutinized, then the burden surely has to be on them 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 wire tapped 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. 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. He says “I’m not a big media press access person.” 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. Asked his Syria intentions by reporters, President Trump responded, “I’m not going to tell you.”
There are legitimate secrets and reasons for non-disclosure, of course, and 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.
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.
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. 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.