Can we hold Congressmen and CEOs accountable?

I discussed a little bit about responsibility and accountability last time, but I didn’t finish.

Responsibility is encouraged as an attitude by a few things, one of them being the proper application of accountability, which of course must exist in order to be ‘proper.’ There is a tendency in all people to be irresponsible if they are not held accountable, often without specific intent or malice.† Many of the great evils of the world happens this way. When anyone feels that they are simply ‘part of the system’ or ‘just doing their job’, they slough off responsibility, and in a corporate or governmental structure the result is the same. Without specific measures appropriate to the task of holding said person accountable, they can and do avoid responsibility.

In a position where so much is at stake, this lack of accountability is actually a shelter from the disapproving eyes and voices of the public. Said accountability is most obviously lacking in the offices of the supreme court. They could not be held accountable by any obvious process, and they are not elected, they are appointed for life. Yet, it is not often that anyone comments on this. I can only presume, because for the large part supreme court rulings have been debated so highly already, and due to our trust in the court judges. It may be that the power of these judges is limited enough that it isn’t a problem.

However, similar points can be made about congressmen, for more complicated reasons. The people of this country feel disenfranchised, whether or not they’re allowed to vote. This is because special interest groups and corporate America, through lobbyists and large monetary donations, have far more sway over government decisions than the average American. Because of this, combined with the polarizing effect of our two-party system democratic process is restricted. This two party system currently excludes the possibility of greater variety in political groups that could exist in larger numbers and with greater sway. How this is limiting is obvious, lumping our opinions and ideas into two simple groupings doesn’t represent the public. What about those that are conservative on social and moral issues, but are liberal on economic issues? Or the group that is conservative economically, but liberal on social issues? They tend not to be represented, not to mention the lack of either major party representing the true left. The ‘left’ are opposed to corporatism and authoritarianism, and with the Democratic party being funded by corporations, I find it unlikely that they could honestly represent the left. This leaves people stuck in counties and states where their vote doesn’t count. A great example is Utah. Many people I know in Utah are more liberal than many Republicans economically, but they continue to vote for the Republican party because it represents for them critical moral issues. They are unwilling to vote for another candidate, because no other candidate will represent their views accurately enough.
And with only one vote, we end up with states that never swing, and ease to political careerism.

There are a few more factors involved, but suffice it to say that congressmen make careers out of making the decisions they want to, and are not held accountable to the people of the state they represent, because the people either are uninterested and do not feel empowered, or they are fundamentally opposed to voting for the other party or other candidates for the reason that the other representatives do not represent their viewpoint. Congressmen are held accountable when the people vote for or against them. However, a select few continue to keep these people in office, through a piecemeal process of machine politics, power politics, fear tactics, and the rigidity of the system. And this, simply by ensuring that their candidate is nominated by their party election after election. Without term limits on congressmen, they continue to both draft and vote on the bills, leaving the American public as spectators. Public involvement is reduced even further, and the entrenchment of the elite, allowed to continue. Careerism, especially among states and counties that don’t tend to swing to different parties, is allowed to flourish.

Adam Smith said, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” The implication is that our democracy, based on citizen’s involvement, is critical to maintaining our liberties. A fantastic example of this is the case of WWII, where Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy passed horrendous legislation. Such legislation could not have been passed nearly so easily, if the people had been aware of what was going on. However, in such a highly nationalized state, these countries had made government functions secretive in the name of security. Most citizens of Germany at least, weren’t aware of the end result of the disenfranchisement of the Jews, gypsies, and others, and as such, with their rights also having been curtailed, they shrank in fear from the idea of questioning what was going on.

An article about introducing term limits to congress members states:
In the House of Representatives, for instance, the average job tenure is ten years. However, the principal leaders (the committee chairmen, speaker, majority leader, and whip) have served an average of twenty-seven years — which means that the average member of this group has been in the House since the Johnson Administration.
And that was in 1994 in a fantastic article by Dan Greenberg, he argues very well in favor of term limits, and that was 15 years ago.‡ I wonder if we took a look now, whether we would see the equivalent―key members of Congress that have been in power since the middle of the Reagan administration. One example is Ralph Hall, who was first elected in 1980. Robert Byrd has been in the Senate since 1959, and he is the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Nancy Pelosi has been in the house since 1987. John Dingell was first elected to the House in 1955. The list goes on. Donald Rumsfeld has been in congress or the White House in and out since 1963, serving twice as Secretary of Defense. There are currently 10 congressmen that have served over 36 years.

It may be argued that these men do not have as much power as individuals in offices such as the President or state governors. It may be argued that not all of them have been in government positions the entire time, or that they have made largely popular and beneficial decisions. That may be true. In the case that they’ve made popular decisions (the general public are informed, and they approve) as well as wise ones (decisions that have created or continued legislation, programs, etc, that have been beneficial to the American public, both socioeconomically and socio-culturally), then by all means, keep them in office, move them from the House to the Senate, make them a foreign ambassador, appoint them to the cabinet, whatever―that’s fine. However, if they simply maintain the status quo, if they continually deregulate the economy and hand more and more federal power to corporate giants, then lets find a way of introducing a better option (deregulation may have it’s perks, but it’s something to be careful of). As previously stated, the current polarized parties allow no real change to happen– because they’re in a deadlock against each other―at least at election time.

This creates accountability by introducing a consequence for a lack of performance. There have been many proposed solutions. One is to limit the terms of congressmen. One is to change, somehow, the voting system, to allow for a third (or fourth) party to enter the fray as a major contender, instead of consigning them to work through another party, or lobbyist groups. Another is to increase referendums (policies, measures, legislation that citizens vote on) and decrease legislation voted on by congress.

On a related note, CEOs and other heads of corporations also have little accountability. Who calls them to account? Their buyers and clients? Not likely with companies that cannot be supplanted by another. Buyers will always vote with their dollars for the cheapest provider of goods and services. Corporate conglomerates will always be able to ‘buy’ these people off, by browbeating competitors and dominating markets. Corporations are theoretically immortal. Their goals are not to provide for the common welfare, but to make a profit. They must make a profit to continue to exist, and expansion is usually their policy, because it increases profits and improves their assets. It’s sound business―and there’s nothing wrong with it, assuming they act responsibly in their position of providential power. If they provide good products and services, then we continue to buy from them―if they don’t, then we go somewhere else. So to support these institutions with taxpayer dollars is irresponsible―because it doesn’t hold them accountable.

There may be a slight exception to this rule. In the past, during Teddy Roosevelt’s era and onward, government spending and support of banks has been evidenced to be good for the economy (of course there are other factors, but it’s a practice that seems to have worked at least some of the time). It may be that the good that it does makes it more worthwhile than the decision to let AIG fall on it’s face, or allow Citibank and J.P. Morgan to collapse, etc. This becomes dangerous (irresponsible) if we do not hold these institutions responsible somehow. The banking situation gets pretty complicated. I’ll suffice it to say that I think the current administration is doing reasonably well, considering how difficult the situation is. But the government bailout of American auto manufacturers isn’t the same. To create responsibility in those markets, we need to allow the old, tired, poorly administrated companies to fail, and let new companies into the market. This could be done gradually with a government takeover (which is halfway the case), or immediately by letting them just fall apart. I’ve also been told that ‘Chapter 11’ bankruptcy might work to the same end, letting the company remake itself from it’s own ashes.

Bottom line―Americans have no real way to hold government responsible when democratic process is so limited by party alliances, strict voting systems, and no term limits on various government officials. My suggestions are as follows. We must introduce congressional term limits, ban corporate lobbyists and other corporate financing of government elections and get the American public involved and attentive. How do we make the change? One opinion at a time. Share this site, share these ideas, share your own, do your own research―listen to the other side of the argument, attempt to find middle ground. Stop talking about the newest fast food craze, or the football game, or what Paris Hilton did this last weekend, and start talking about things that matter. If you don’t start talking about these important things, you are contributing to the irresponsible atmosphere of the country, and you are refusing to even attempt to hold accountable those that guide our country and our future.

† Hannah Arendt, The Banality of Evil
‡ Dan Greenberg, , 1994 (accessed 29 Jan 2010)
Special thanks to:  Ben Warner, Eric Meyer, Sarah Law, and Malcom Judd for helping me edit this post.


Filed under Congress, Corporatism, Current Events, Economics, Free Markets, Leadership, Philosophy, Politics, Supreme Court, Voting

4 responses to “Can we hold Congressmen and CEOs accountable?

  1. Thanks for your nice comments about my article. I am currently a state legislator, an experience which has underscored my endorsement of term limits.

  2. I believe if we disempower government we simultaneously disempower corporations. It is certainly not a democracy when special interests can lobby just about any law in their favor. Americans are going to need to wake up, one pair of eyes at a time, if we want to turn away from this disastrous path we are heading (corporate capitalism or fascism).

    But right now many people believe government is the place to turn for solutions. We have become dependent on them for extreme measures of “protection” and “security” (both conservatives and liberals alike).

    Great post Elkym, these are questions that people need to ask themselves the next time they step into the voting booth.

  3. Myke

    One more long quote from Dan Greenberg, I think this is a fantastic argument for why term limits would help secure better judgement from our representatives:

    “Term limits secure Congress’s independent judgment.

    In one of the few cases where Congress itself has established term limits, service on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees is limited on the grounds that long-term membership might cause Members to develop a loyalty to the intelligence bureaucracy that would undermine their ability to exercise critical and independent judgment over it. This mandatory term limit is based on a sound theory of human conduct, but it deserves wider application; in an age where scores of federal agencies and special interests continually lobby for funding, there is a very real danger that Congressmen will become enmeshed in a culture that is overfamiliar with the federal government and insulated from the communities they ostensibly represent. Public sentiment in favor of term limits is likely influenced by the fear that Congressmen will become captured by this alien federal culture, as well as by frustration with the sclerotic representation that results from incumbents of all political stripes routinely getting reelected.”

  4. In response to Steven’s comments.

    On the one hand, I can agree– if we take away some of the Federal government’s capabilities as well as perhaps some of their money and relegate it to states and local government… then we could end up with less successful lobbying, because there is less of a prize.

    On the other hand– that was part of the reason for Teddy Roosevelt’s (not to mention Taft’s…) strong national actions against monopolies. Such power has actually, largely been diminished (with many Federal organizations gutted– like the FDA).

    Thanks for your comments, everyone.

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