Lee Hamilton: Oversight means accountability – and that’s a good thing

As various House committees gear up for a season of investigations and hearings on President Donald Trump and his administration, a lot of people are worried that progress on the nation’s challenges will grind to a halt. I would argue just the opposite: The new emphasis on oversight means the wheels of government are turning in favor of accountability.

Our system rests squarely on the notion that government officials – whether elected or appointed – need to be accountable to the people they govern. They are responsible for their behavior, their decisions and the policies they support.

Which is why the weakening of accountability in our system over the past few decades ought to worry all Americans. It has become very difficult, for instance, to question a president – a problem that preceded the current occupant of the White House. Official presidential press conferences, which once were free-wheeling affairs at which presidents faced sustained questioning from reporters well-versed in their policies, are barely held these days.

Politicians and bureaucrats at all levels have become quite skilled at avoiding accountability. And though several national news outlets have lately stepped up their scrutiny of public officials in Washington, there is for the most part less investigative journalism than there once was.

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Which raises another issue. A lot of players ought to be exercising oversight: members of Congress, the government’s inspectors general, the media – we even have an agency, the Government Accountability Office, dedicated to the task. But for them to do their work, the system needs transparency. Almost every day you see signs of officials hiding what they do from the public, most often without justification.

The problem with this, of course, is that it’s anti-democratic. How are we supposed to make reasoned decisions about who and what we want to see in our government if we don’t know what’s going on and who’s responsible for it?

Perhaps the most famous hallmark of Harry Truman’s tenure as president was the motto he placed on his desk: “The buck stops here.” There’s a reason why people still consider it a standard they wish other politicians would set for themselves. Americans want officials who will take responsibility for their decisions.

The people want political leaders to hold themselves accountable to the public. And they want to see public officials exercise the responsibility handed them by the Constitution to hold others accountable. That the House is moving to do so is not a detour from governing; it’s the essence of good government.

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Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a former Democratic congressman.