We have a secrecy problem. This may seem odd to say in an era when the most intimate details of individuals’ lives are routinely on public display. Yet government is moving behind closed doors, and this is the wrong direction. I am dismayed by public officials’ growing reluctance to conduct the public’s business in public.
City and town councils regularly go into executive session to discuss “personnel issues” that often don’t need to be handled in private. At the state level, lawmakers exempt themselves from public records laws, underfund public watchdogs and exempt lobbying expenditures from sunshine laws.
Meanwhile, contributors to federal campaigns increasingly manage to avoid disclosure of their political activities. Government contractors are rarely subject to the transparency rules that affect federal agencies. Routine information is classified and kept secret. Members of Congress increasingly rely on omnibus spending bills put together behind closed doors by a handful of leaders and congressional staff with no public scrutiny.
Most notably, secrecy extends to national security issues. There are some government secrets that are necessary to protect, and a balance has to be struck between security and openness. But those who favor secrecy should make their case in public and not rely on the adage, “Trust me.”
Openness is not a panacea, but it makes good government more likely. Representative democracy depends on our ability to know what’s being done in our name. We cannot exercise the discriminating judgment required of citizens about politics, policies and politicians if we do not know what they are doing.
Nor is it possible to maintain the checks and balances required under our Constitution without openness and transparency. We have to shine a bright light on the actions of public officials so that it’s more likely they’ll act with integrity. Justice Louis Brandeis gave perhaps the most famous formulation of this requirement in his 1913 statement: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
But Judge Damon Keith of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals put an exclamation point on the idea in a 2002 ruling preventing the government from conducting secret deportation hearings without proving the need for secrecy. “Democracies,” he wrote, “die behind closed doors.”
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.