Sep 17, 2019

AUSTIN, Texas  — U.S. Constitution and Citizenship Day, which we observe Sept. 17th, is an opportunity to reflect on the health of the American polity. The American Constitutional system requires that those in authority remain accountable for their actions, accessible to the people and transparent in distributing public resources. Our constitutional system is failing because of the shortcomings in these elements.

Accountability is lacking in our political system. One symptom is the low turnover of congressional incumbents. Incumbents command the lion’s share of campaign contributions and are holding fewer face-to-face meetings in their districts. Both of these insulate Congress from voters. In the past 20 years, incumbents were re-elected an average greater than 90% of the time. While low turnover does not give us the complete picture of accountability, it is a snapshot into the insulated status of those in power. Reinvigorating accountability can include easier avenues for voting, limits on campaign contributions and terms in office, eliminating politically driven redistricting, and legislation requiring elected officials to hold more local public forums.

Access to those in office is also deficient. Legislators are increasingly removed from the people they represent, as gatekeepers block the public from having a direct conversation about issues with elected officials. It is no wonder that Americans pay lobbyists and other professionals to represent them in the legislative process. In the book, “The Business of America is Lobbying,” Lee Drutman points to the fact that money spent on lobbying now exceeds the amount of the entire congressional operating budget. The message is clear. If you want access, hire a lobbyist. Even public universities, municipalities and public school districts have teams of lobbyists to access the power structure. Improved access could include a public database that posts all elected officials’ meetings, the names of those attending the meeting, and general information about what was discussed there.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis argued that transparency in public decisions remains an essential element of democracy. Brandeis said, “If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.” Transparency discloses how decisions are made, who is making those decisions, and the reasons for certain decisions. While more information is available through social media, that information can serve as a diversion from the real places of power. “Following” a legislator on Twitter may provide tidbits of information, but it is not at the heart of Brandeis’ comment. Transparency means that the legislative process, decisions and outcomes are on open display. Greater transparency could include scrutinizing legislative rules to disclose information about officials’ voting patterns, an open public budget process, legislative records of meetings and events both inside and outside of the Capitol, along with open records involving legislative correspondence with one another and the public.

The Constitution places the burden of proof on those in power to explain barriers that limit access, accountability and transparency to public decisions and resources. The Constitution supports the values of fair and equal access to the political marketplace. If those in power cannot justify certain barriers to the political marketplace, then a healthy democracy requires dismantling those obstacles.

The symptoms of an ailing constitutional system are cured when we address the underlying loss of accountability, accessibility and transparency in our republic. It is ultimately the responsibility of each citizen to ask these questions and expect those in power to abide by these constitutional principles.

By David Thomason, an assistant professor of Political Science at St. Edward's University. This article was first published in the Austin Statesman.