Secrecy erodes people’s role in government

What do these have in common?

The congressional consideration of new trade negotiating authority for the president.

The development of the Maine biennial budget.

The National Security Agency collection of data on Americans’ communications.

Answer: they were all conducted in secret.

In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln spoke of “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”  When it’s quoted these days, the emphasis in placed on “of,” “by” and “for,” when reportedly Lincoln placed the emphasis three times on the word “people.”  Say it aloud and you will see a big difference.

Now, it seems that government is meant to be “for the people,” but not “of” or “by” us.  Government takes care of us, while we are largely excluded from the process.

The so-called Fast Track trade negotiating authority is supposed to allow President Obama to agree to the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal free from later congressional amendments.  But members of Congress now can only look at the proposed agreement in secret and cannot even take notes much less tell citizens about what they read.

Extensive public debate about the TPP supposedly undermines Obama’s bargaining position.  We more or less have to trust him and the fast readers in Congress to get a good deal with as little harm as possible.

The new Maine budget, which finally became public just shortly before it was adopted, was negotiated in secret.  One member said discussions were “sensitive,” apparently inhibiting some legislators from public deal-making.  Obviously, compromises had to be made, but leaders did not want the public to see the actual trade-offs.  Voters had to accept that legislators had made the best deal for them.

As for the NSA, it wanted access to our phone and email records to protect us, but it could not tell us, as that would tip us off.  And it did not want secret judicial review, because that was not as efficient.  We were expected to trust government to take care of us.

All of these moves may have been in violation of transparency or other laws.  Even worse, they violated the democratic system.

The Constitution is venerated as the basis of our government and, according to its first three words, was made by “We, the people.”  And every law passed in Maine begins: “Be it enacted by the People of the State of Maine.”

The people are the sovereign under our system, but the government has taken on that character and the people look much more like its subjects.

With the exception of the relatively unusual town meeting form of government, a country the size of the United States cannot have direct democracy, where the people themselves make the laws and rules.  We have a representative democracy, which we define as a republic.

The problem arises when the representatives begin to see a gap between themselves and the people who put them in office to represent their interests.  While average citizens cannot follow the details of every piece of legislation, that’s no excuse to keep them from access to the details.

Clearly, this creates a governing process a lot less efficient than a dictatorship.  But democracy is supposed to be messy, even inefficient.  That helps guarantee change can be carefully considered and people will have the time to listen to a debate on issues before action is taken in their name.

Under a system in which the people cannot read every proposal, two institutions have a special responsibility.  One is government itself, which needs to ensure that its actions are conducted in public.

Government recognized public pressure to know more and enacted Freedom of Information and Freedom of Access laws.  As positive as the open government concept was, it has gradually lost its luster.  Exception after exception has found its way into the law, always for the good reasons cited by its proponents, but almost never in the public’s interest.

The other is the media, the so-called fourth branch of government, which has the job of reporting back to the people on what government is doing and conveying to government public reaction.

To assist citizens, the media should continually highlight every occasion when government seeks to do business out of the public view.  This means bird-dogging government daily, not once or twice a year, and trying to dig out the story.

Instead, media has often become part of the government mechanism, keeping matters and sources secret so that it can tap those sources again later.

But “later” may be too late in governing “for the people.”

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.