Accountability in a republic (6/5/2011)

The problem of governmental accountability represented the great issue of the founding period, and it remains one of the most pressing issues of our time. This is nothing new to American citizens. The familiar cry of the revolutionary period — “Where frequent elections end, tyranny begins” — which fell from the lips of our greatest leaders, had everything to do with the accountability.

Elected officials, the founders believed, bore an obligation to explain and defend their actions, their votes and their positions on issues. Fulfillment of that obligation made elections meaningful, rather than cynical, and it infused the concept of representative government with a daily, operational conscience.

The American political system is laden with mechanisms to maintain governmental accountability. Consider those with which you are most familiar: open meeting laws, legislative hearings and investigations, recorded votes, the publication of legislative journals that reflect the discussions and debates of legislators, publication of laws and ordinances enacted by governing bodies at every level, impeachment inquiries and press conferences. Without accountability, it would be impossible to know whom to blame for poor decisions and impoverished policies.

Public service, moreover, entails a duty, and should entail a willingness, to defend one’s views, votes and actions. Why would candidates seek office in the first place if they were not eager to propose their solutions to the problems of their time? And, it follows, why wouldn’t they be eager to publicly explain their positions and votes, as a means of educating and persuading the electorate on the wisdom of their actions? Some officials, it is familiar, are eager to mount the platform and explain their policy preferences. Others aren’t, of course, and duck invitations and opportunities to explain their votes.

With this in mind, there is a need to give credit to Tom Luna, Superintendent of Public Instruction, for his willingness at a recent meeting of the City Club of Idaho Falls to field a line of rigorous questioning on his recent proposals (now state laws) to overhaul education in Idaho. He doesn’t deserve a medal for taking the questions, for that is a duty of elected officials, but he might have tried to avoid questions that pressed him on the development and timeline of his education reforms. He didn’t. He showed up.

Luna’s answers may or may not affect voters’ thinking about his reforms when they exercise their individual means of holding him accountable in November of 2012, but his explanations proved useful to the ongoing dialogue and debate about the future of education in our state. At all events, Luna’s participation in the process was instructive: If you hold elective office, you have a duty to explain your views and votes.