Accountability

Jamil posed a question on my last post, “How do you hold someone accountable who made bad law despite good intentions?” It struck me not only as a good question, but an important question. Currently, we simply don’t hold our elected officials accountable for the quality or the quantity of the laws (or policies or precedents) they make. In other words, we don’t hold them responsible for how bad or good they are at their jobs. We only hold them responsible for speaking gaffes and sexual misconduct and things like that, and we’re not even very consistent about those. We judge them based on likability rather than competence.

What would it even look like if we held our legislators accountable for how well or badly they did their jobs? That’s a very hard question to answer. Most of us don’t have any kind of baseline standard to use. I know I don’t. How many pieces of legislation should a Congressperson write/sponsor/endorse/vote on per year? Is it different for the House and the Senate? How does the level of involvement in the legislation change the accountability? It seems natural to say that if you write or sponsor a bill, your level of responsibility is higher than if you merely vote for it. But what about the difference between chairing a committee versus sitting on the committee? Listening to a debate versus speaking in the debate? That’s only a very incomplete list of quantitative things, how much work the legislator is doing, and it’s already bewildering.

How do you judge the quality of a law? Are there objective standards that can be used? What’s more important, the effectiveness of the law (did it do what it was supposed to do) or the effects of the law (what did it actually do)? What kind of timeframe do you use to judge a law? It’s theoretically possible to have quick results, but most policies will take years or decades to assess. Especially in the House of Representatives, a lawmaker’s term could be over before the preliminary results are in. Most laws affect different segments of the population differently. Do you judge a law based on the effect on the majority, on the most marginalized, or on something else entirely? I don’t even have tentative answers to these questions.

Then there is the difficulty of combining the quantitative with the qualitative. What if there is one legislator who writes lots and lots of bills, but the bills are mediocre at best? What if there’s a Senator who has only sponsored one piece of legislation in the last thirty years, but it was an absolutely brilliant piece of legislation? It’s like trying to compare Harper Lee to John Grisham.

Assuming it’s possible to sort all that out, how do we hold elected officials accountable? What kind of consequences can they face for lack of quality or quantity, for not being good at their jobs? Is it all or nothing, they either win election or lose? Is there any way to reprimand a legislator? Is that what angry letters are?

This just goes to show that legislating in a democracy isn’t like other jobs and voters are not like other bosses. Government is not a business and should not be run like one. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t hold our elected officials accountable. We absolutely should hold them accountable. But there’s no list of rules we can follow, no prescribed punishments for getting things wrong.

Too often, we settle for the devil we know and fail to hold them accountable at all. The same people get elected to Congress term after term. It doesn’t really matter how well they’re doing, incumbency is a huge advantage in any race. As voters, we need to change our mindset. We need to hold our elected officials accountable by being engaged, informed, and vocal citizens. Angry letters are part of it and so are protests and civil disobedience. Making those in power look like fools is a tried and true way to hold them accountable. But voting is, by far, the most important way. They work for us and should never be allowed to forget it.

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