Don't Feed the Crocodiles: Democratic Protections Are Eroding. What Can the Public Administration Community Do to Restore Them?

By Rubin, Irene | The Public Manager, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Don't Feed the Crocodiles: Democratic Protections Are Eroding. What Can the Public Administration Community Do to Restore Them?


Rubin, Irene, The Public Manager


Ronald Reagan once warned, "To sit back hoping that someday, someway, someone will make things right is to go on feeding the crocodile, hoping he will eat you last-but eat you he will." We can--we must--stop feeding the crocodile. Adherence to the Constitution and rule of law, accountability, and the right to protest-fundamental components of democracy--all have been weakened in recent years.

Constitutionalism and the Rule of Law

The Constitution requires Congress, the president, and the courts to check each other's powers, but the president has made it difficult for Congress or the courts to oversee or curtail the executive branch. At times, the president has ignored the law, arguing that it is his right to do so.

The administration has sometimes forbidden executives to provide Congress requested information on controversial programs or programmatic failures. Sometimes the information it does provide is of questionable authenticity. For example, the administration, providing its own lower estimate of costs, prevented a Social Security actuary from revealing to Congress a more realistic estimate of costs of the proposed Medicare Part D drug benefit until after voting had occurred.

The U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) instructed agency officials to ignore judgments of illegality delivered by congressional agencies. The administration also instructed public officials to bypass court supervision. President Bush wrote in a signing statement that he is not bound by a law forbidding the torture of prisoners.

The president ignored a 1978 law requiring the administration to go to a special court for permission to wiretap. The administration turned down Congress's offer to lower the legal threshold for conducting surveillance of non-U.S. persons from probable cause to reasonable suspicion (in S.2659), instead launching a secret program using the lower standard of evidence.

Accountability

Open, accurate, and timely provision of information allows for accountability. By contrast, the administration has increased the classification of documents, withdrawn information from Web sites, reclassified declassified information, and shrunk the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. Information the administration has provided the public has often blurred the distinction between objective information and propaganda. Many government agencies pay public relations firms to produce infomercials that are presented as news. These firms script questions and answers to administrators, omitting any suggestion of criticism. Agencies use these videos to defend government policies; television stations broadcast them as news. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that these videos were illegal domestic propaganda, but Justice and OMB instructed the agencies to ignore GAO's decision.

Moreover, some documents that are released, such as the budget, contain information that is less reliable than before. By omitting $70 to $80 billion a year for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the president seems to make those costs disappear. The way the administration scores its tax cuts makes those reductions look as if they do not cost the government any money. In 2005, the outyears were dropped for the first time since 1989. The future consequences of current decisions suddenly vanished. The ability of the budget to act as a tool of public accountability is decreasing.

Freedom to Protest

As the right to oppose government is curtailed, democracy yields to authoritarianism. The ability to protest has been challenged by domestic terrorism prevention programs that have been expanded to spy on opponents of government policies.

In 2003, the Department of Defense (DoD) created a database--TALON, Threat and Local Observation Notice-to track groups and individuals with links to terrorism that might infiltrate or threaten military bases. …

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