Accountability, transparency crucial to rebuilding public trust

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Pew Research Center recently found that 67% of Americans believe that “most politicians are corrupt,” and 65% said the U.S. political system needs major reform. For a country that is fiercely divided, there is finally something we agree on.

It’s clear that our elected officials need to take serious measures to earn back our trust.

That’s why I’ve been so encouraged to see our elected officials in Michigan doing something about it. Policymakers in Lansing are working on an array of bills aimed at restoring public trust and revamping the state’s ethics laws, especially since Michigan has frequently received poor marks for transparency. These bills have received bipartisan support and can serve as a model for legislatures nationwide.

The most significant change in Michigan would mandate that lawmakers disclose their finances to the public and prevent them from voting on matters where they have a conflict of interest. Furthermore, they would restrict lawmakers from leaving office and immediately becoming lobbyists for at least two years, effectively mitigating the “revolving door” of state government and lobbying.

Michigan’s state legislature is taking an important first step in the fight to hold government accountable — if not an obvious one — and it’s about time our federal lawmakers do the same.

To begin with, the “revolving door” at the federal level must be accounted for. We need to discourage this practice, or influence from special interests will continue taking precedent in lawmaking decisions, further eroding public faith in government. If our lawmakers know they can make more money lobbying in the future, they may not make legislative choices in the public’s best interest in the present, damaging the integrity of government institutions.

Furthermore, anti-corruption and public transparency laws such as the Hatch Act and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) must be better enforced, regardless of political affiliation. The Project On Government Oversight (POGO), an independent government watchdog, recently released its Baker’s Dozen report, which details how — among other legislative consequences — the legal authority for both FOIA and the Hatch Act has been curtailed. Noting this, the POGO report provides recommendations that can enact “much needed reforms and improvements” to how government operates in order to institute greater measures of transparency and accountability.

The Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from participating in certain political activities so that taxpayer dollars are not used for partisan purposes, is strictly enforced against rank-and-file federal employees. However, when senior advisers to the president or those higher up in government violate the Hatch Act, there are usually little to no consequences. This two-tier system of enforcement is not serving the public interest in keeping tax dollars out of partisan elections. A path must be created to enforce the Hatch Act against high-level political officials.

As for FOIA, we’ve seen how limited the transparency law can be. The act serves as a process to review and decide on the disclosure of records to the public, but it has largely been used to shield government activity and corruption. Executive agency leadership easily takes advantage of exemptions meant to protect truly sensitive information to withhold information that rightfully belongs to the public.

Lax and inconsistent application of ethics and transparency laws fosters corruption and inevitably invites more distrust from the public. However, as we have seen from our lawmakers at the state level, accountability and transparency are worth prioritizing. It’s time for Michigan’s federal representatives and their colleagues in Congress to step up, too.

Improving public trust in our government — state and federal — is critical to healing our deep partisan divides. And that starts with meaningful reform of the laws meant to keep our government accountable to all the people.

Melissa LaGrand is a first-term term Kent County commissioner from Grand Rapids.

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