If there is any principle upon which most members of the electorate can agree, at least part of the time, it’s that governmental funding and decisions ought, with few exceptions, to be transparent to the citizenry. Sunlight, it is said, is an excellent disinfectant, as only the most brazen will pursue misdeeds in the day time, or in the glare of public scrutiny. Indeed, part of the Change we were promised recently was greater transparency, in contrast to the murky dealings of the previous Administration.
I say part-of-the-time because those on the ‘outs’ tend to become staunch transparency advocates, while the ‘ins’ can conjure lots of reasons why their team should get the benefit of the doubt. Unsurprisingly, something about holding power infects the thinking of those that have it. The issue becomes more central periodically – like calendarwork, even – as the voters rouse from their daily lives to attend the campaigns office holders and seekers.
This year’s edition of these follies has an interesting twist – while the Dems work to opacify certain elements of the Obama administration’s performance, lest they hand campaign fodder to the GOP, the Republicans are scrambling to anonymize their donor lists. The transparency principle thus suffers whitewash from one side and invisibility cloaking from the other. This is one policy matter in which both sides are culpable in their own ways – We, the People are the losers when it succeeds.
Most recently, Mr. Obama has claimed Executive Privilege, one of those limited exceptions to the transparency principle, to avoid Justice Department production of certain documents related to the infamous “Fast and Furious” border gun-running debacle. It seems that somewhere in the bowels of the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (part of the Treasury Department), someone thought it would be a good idea to allow guns to flow into Mexico and then trace them, to help build cases against their drug lord users. Shoddy record-keeping added incompetence to absurdity; guns and lives were lost – possibly including the murder of a US Border Patrol agent.
Executive Privilege exists to shield some deliberations within government from public scrutiny, ostensibly to protect the candor of internal policy deliberations. Like other privileges, it is intended to be a narrowly-applied exception to disclosure. It is susceptible to misuse, especially when embarrassment will likely accompany disclosure, and most especially during Leap Years, when more folks pay attention. In view of the latter fact, disclosure delayed may be disclosure avoided, as many issues have labels with November "sell-by” dates.
On the GOP side, Mitch McConnell, the Party’s top elected official, has borrowed a page from the Prop 8 handbook in an attempt to protect the identities of Republican campaign donors. He wants to protect fragile gazillionaires and multinationals from any market backlash their tender bottom lines might suffer from such disclosure.
Now, one might consider that providing those IDs would be particularly important in the wake of floodgates opened by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision – and one would be right. The line between large donations and bribery is already gray enough – add unaccountability to the mix and the line practically disappears. And note that the issue does not end with domestic individuals and companies – what if, say, the Chinese government decided it would be prudent to protect its considerable US public debt investment by ensuring policies designed to secure those holdings? Or insert your own foreign sovereign or entity as boogeyman – Israel, Syria, a criminal enterprise or a religious sect.
In the case of campaign finance, the anti-harassment policies that underlie any exceptions are so weak as to be laughable. The public’s right to know who brung particular candidates to the dance (and will likely take them home) simply overrides issues of potential backlash. And after all, even if a contribution disinclines some voters from your business, there is certainly a nearly equal number who will seek your custom as a result of it. The purposes of those who will give only upon an assurance of unaccountability are particularly likely to be dubious. When pols act to encourage such secrecy, only their motives are rendered transparent.
As a general rule, determining the right thing to do is a pretty simple matter. The exceptions, rationalizations and sleight-of-hand used to justify the wrong things are unhelpful, usually bogus complications. There’s often a direct relationship between degree of complication and ulterior motivation. Transparency is a pretty simple concept; the more complex it is made, the more one ought to come out into the sunshine.