In the ‘State of the Union’ speech, President Obama said he would name a bipartisan commission to guide the federal budget onto a sustainable path. The clear inference here is that the current path is unsustainable….and that a commission rather than our elected Congress would be able to have greater success in dealing with our federal debt and budget crisis. But decisions about the national debt and the federal budget aren’t just about spreadsheets and sound bites…they’re about public values. I first heard about this proposal before the speech on the Public Agenda page of Facebook…to say the least, I was disappointed. My response was: “Hmmm…so because our elected officials are unwilling to do their jobs, we need a ‘commission’ to take their places in the really difficult decisions. I have some mixed feelings about this…how about holding our elected officials accountable instead?” After hearing the President, my opinion hasn’t changed.
Interestingly enough, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said recently in his ‘State of the State’ speech that he would most likely name a bipartisan commission to guide the state’s redistricting process. It was billed as a first, solid step to make California more governable: Take the drawing of legislative districts out of the hands of lawmakers, whose interests lie in keeping seats safe for their own party, and turn it over to a citizens’ commission. The result would be more competitive elections, winnable by a Democrat or Republican, which in turn should encourage more moderates rather than ideologues to run. But as the time nears to redraw district lines after the 2010 Census, the state office implementing the plan has a serious problem that could threaten the commission’s credibility. The pool of volunteers who have applied so far doesn’t come close to reflecting California’s diversity, not only in ethnicity but in age, gender and other ways. Oops! Maybe this isn’t such a great idea after all.
These are difficult times for all politicians…at all levels. More specifically, the era of easy political decisions is over. Many of our elected officials are running for cover…the others are in serious denial about the current status of their chosen profession. In politics these days, there are less and less places to hide. Tough decisions must be made. Certainly attempts are being made to shield politicians from their mandated responsibilities, but public scrutiny won’t relent anytime soon. If anything, I believe it’ll get stronger and more focused as politicians try to deflect their duties onto others who are simply appointed. Some will still try to hide behind partisan firewalls…others will try to hide behind ideology…others will hide behind the recommendations of commissions. No matter where our elected officials seek to hide…they need to find justice rather than relief.
I have to admit that I don’t particularly have a ‘watch-dog’ personality, but I’m glad some others do. My suspicion is that many of our politicians today…Democrats and Republicans…want to continue their petty, partisan bickering without any consequences. Many Democrats see it as pay-back or a new opportunity to advance progressive values, while many Republicans see it as their chance to regain power through passive resistance. We probably do need lots of ‘watch-dogs’ these days to keep tabs on many of our elected officials as they try to navigate an increasingly treacherous political climate without taking responsibility for anything.
I realize this sounds very cynical, but when ‘commissions’ are proposed in state and federal venues as the solutions to political gridlock I start to wonder where we draw the line with accountability. I might be wrong…but, I see these steps as an admission by the President and our Governor that our system of electoral accountability is broken. We need ‘commissions’ to do these jobs in order to revive some semblance of accountability in public policy decisions…after all, members of ‘commissions’ can do the tough political wrangling and then be thrown under the bus.
We need a renewed public conversation about responsibility, trust and accountability. At the heart of this conversation I believe we will find that each layer of public responsibility has unique challenges and opportunities…and has a unique role in reestablishing and protecting the public trust. Let’s talk about accountability as everyone’s ethical responsibility. Let’s talk about being trustworthy, rather than talking about trust as mere consumers. This is a big-picture meta-issue that will continue to sabotage our ability to take action on our most pressing public needs if we don’t face it…and soon.