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Why sunshine still matters

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Provo, Apr 11, 2013 | comments

(Daily Herald) - In the quest to root out waste, fraud and abuse, government is a target-rich environment. Thanks to open records laws, audits, inspectors general and Congressional oversight, Americans are privy to a great deal of information about their government that is unavailable in most other countries on the planet.

Yet too frequently, when government malpractice is uncovered and released, it is greeted with a collective yawn.

I’m deeply troubled by a developing narrative that suggests sunshine — in the form of investigations and public exposure of government wrongdoing — is a waste of time and money.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Justice Brandeis famously said sunlight is the best disinfectant. This is true on several levels. Shining a light on wrongdoing can deter similar activities, create public pressure to force change, drive legislative action and even affect election outcomes.

But if feelings of cynicism, futility or apathy mute public response, oversight becomes neither a deterrent nor a threat. Again and again I hear from people who question whether investigations do any good. They perceive Congress can’t or won’t do anything to hold people accountable.

In truth, there are some things we can’t do — things the public would like us to do. Understanding the limits of Congressional power may help alleviate the feelings of futility some Americans feel and help all of us direct our energies to the activities that actually can force change.

What can’t we do? Congress does not have the authority to arrest, prosecute or jail anyone. The Constitution expressly grants that power to the executive branch, which has largely abrogated that authority under this administration.

Secondly, while Congress may have the power of the purse to cut agency budgets, we don’t have the power to control exactly how the executive branch implements the cuts. When we cut the IRS budget, the agency chose to cut the most important services — like customer service — in order to drum up public support for restoring funding. This ultimately hurt the public more than it hurt the IRS.

Fortunately, thanks to transparency and sunlight, the impact of an investigation goes beyond those factors the executive branch can control. They may refuse to prosecute or fire anyone. They may use budget cuts to hurt the public. But they can’t hide from what happens when the truth comes out.

What happens when darkness is brought to light? First, successful investigations can have a chilling effect on bad behavior. In the absence of market forces to constrain government, the threat of public exposure creates its own restraints. One agency gets called on the carpet and the others begin to clean up their act. We saw this when we exposed extravagant conference spending in one agency, and many others began to cut back. I guarantee you — no government manager wants to come before my committee to defend the indefensible.

Secondly, sunshine can create public pressure to force change. Public backlash can force a recalcitrant president to ask for resignations of culpable officials — as has happened well over a dozen times during my chairmanship. It can also embarrass wayward agencies into changing the way they do business.

Third, exposing truth can build public support for legislation addressing the abuse. Recent hearings into federal obstruction of the Freedom of Information Act led to legislation closing many of the loopholes used to hide documents. Versions of FOIA legislation have now passed both bodies of Congress.

Fourth, public pressure can force the administration to release documents it previously sought to withhold. We’ve seen this happen with the Environmental Protection Agency, IRS, Department of Justice and others.

Finally, sunlight can activate the last and most powerful line of defense — the vote. Our system empowers the public to act when the government will not. Although the power to hold people accountable in the short term rests with the president, the power to hold the president accountable in the long term belongs to the public. At the end of the day, we decide who runs the executive branch.

I will continue to investigate this administration and the next because sunshine still matters. The public has tremendous power to force change. I encourage Utahns to help drive that change by amplifying your concerns. Do not settle for wasteful or incompetent government. We deserve better.

Chaffetz, R-Utah, is chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee.

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