Good Government 101: Public’s Right to Know
by U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley
A bit of wisdom attributed to a 16th century philosopher has nearly become cliché’ in today’s 21st century information age: Knowledge is power.
The Internet and widespread, user-friendly technology allow people from around the world to mobilize, communicate and share unfiltered information and ideas like never before. Going digital has revolutionized consumer behavior, the global economy and the public’s expectations for information.
The public’s right to know dates back to America’s founders whose advocacy and altruism planted the seeds of our republic that would create a lasting government created of, by and for the people.
James Madison, hailed as the father of the U.S. Constitution, served as the primary architect of our system of checks and balances and embraced the rights of the individual, saying, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Representing Iowans in the U.S. Senate, I have championed the public’s right to know and to protect freedom of information.
Meeting with Iowans in each of Iowa’s 99 counties at least once every year for the past three decades helps keep me accountable to the people who elect me to public office. Keeping in touch with constituents – whether it’s face-to-face or by e-mail, with traditional news outlets or via social media – helps me to uphold the public trust.
What’s more, I take seriously my oath of office to uphold the Constitution. As an elected caretaker of our representative democracy, I work to nurture and cultivate the freedoms and responsibilities of all Americans.
Transparency, openness, accessibility and accountability are non-negotiable cornerstones of good government that build faith in the three branches of the federal government. Bureaucratic stonewalling and judicial over-reaching foster cynicism and distrust that harm public confidence. In turn, this damages the government’s ability to effectively serve its citizens and, for example, could lead to an erosion of voluntary tax compliance.
From City Hall, to the Statehouse, to Capitol Hill, the taxpaying public has a vested interest in the people’s business. Taxpayers deserve scrupulous stewardship of their tax dollars and assurance that our system of checks and balances is working to root out waste, fraud and abuse and to protect the integrity of the rule of law.
That’s why I have worked year after year to keep the people’s business open for public consumption. Most recently, that includes my ongoing oversight of the:
- Department of Justice’s “Fast and Furious” gun walking fiasco that allowed the illegal sale of thousands of weapons to flow to Mexico;
- Department of Health and Human Service’s decision to shut down a public website with information on malpractice cases involving thousands of the nation’s doctors;
- Federal Communications Commission and its attempt to block information from members of Congress and the public about a fast-tracked licensing agreement for a politically-connected applicant;
- Securities and Exchange Commission’s missteps in its mission to protect investor confidence and the integrity of capital markets, including my efforts to support whistleblowers, tighten the revolving door between investment firms and regulatory and law enforcement, and to protect record-keeping relevant to investigations of wrongdoing on Wall Street.
The public’s right to know is a fundamental liberty of citizenship. So whether it’s protecting watchdogs and whistleblowers or clearing out bureaucratic cobwebs with stronger sunshine laws, I’m working in Washington to promote access to government information. The taxpaying public pays the bills, and the taxpaying public deserves to know how its government operates.
As James Madison wrote, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” That’s why I’m committed to encourage, enable and engage the public to, as Madison also said, “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Friday, November 11, 2011
Q&A on the Deficit Reduction Committee
with U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley
Q: What exactly is the deficit reduction committee in Congress, and under what authority was it created?
A: Last summer, Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011. The law made it possible for the federal government to borrow more money, avoiding possible default on debt, and authorized the formation of a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. Twelve members of Congress – six Democrats and six Republicans – were named by party leaders to the Joint Committee, and two of them are designated as co-chairs. Committee members are charged with presenting a ten-year proposal for at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction by November 23. Both the Senate and the House are supposed to vote on the Joint Committee’s legislative package by December 23. If the Joint Committee doesn’t agree on deficit reduction legislation or it is not enacted, then an automatic spending reduction process would be triggered beginning in January 2013. These automatic reductions would be divided evenly between defense and non-defense spending. The way that the Budget Control Act restricts amendments and limits time for debate is unusual. I’m an advocate for regular order where standing committees develop responsible policy and legislative proposals in their areas of jurisdiction. And, I voted against the Budget Control Act because the spending reductions weren’t proportional to the massive fiscal challenges we face. But, Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution gives to both the Senate and House the power to “determine the Rules of its proceedings,” and the Budget Control Act was adopted by Congress and signed into law by the President on August 2, 2011.
Q: Can Congress unravel the law if the Joint Committee isn’t successful, preventing the automatic deficit reduction from taking effect?
A: As the director of the Congressional Budget Office recently said, “Any Congress can reverse the actions of a previous Congress.” At the same time, there is tremendous pressure to begin reversing unsustainable growth in the federal debt and deficits. In 2009, for the first time ever, the deficit was more than $1 trillion. From 1946 to 2008, budget deficits averaged 1.7 percent of the gross domestic product and exceeded five percent only three times. From 2009 to 2011, budget deficits will average 9.4 percent of the gross domestic product. The federal debt held by the public has grown from 40 percent of the gross domestic product in 2008 to an estimated 69 percent of the gross domestic product in 2011. The fact that Congress can vote to abandon plans put in place for spending restraint – and, too often, either has unraveled budget controls or never adopted them in the first place – makes the case for a constitutional requirement for a balanced budget. I’m a co-sponsor of legislation that would establish a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. The last time the Senate voted on a balanced budget amendment was in March 1997, when the nation’s debt was less than half of what it is today. The resolution failed by one vote. A balanced budget amendment passed the House of Representatives in 1995. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives must vote on a balanced budget amendment this year, sometime before December 31, thanks to a requirement in the Budget Control Act.
Q: Don’t tax increases need to be part of the solution for reducing deficits and debt?
A: Fiscal discipline and economic growth need to be the top priorities for deficit and debt reduction. Unchecked government spending will further threaten economic opportunity with higher debt and higher taxes. It might be one thing if tax increases actually were used to reduce the deficit, but that’s not what happens. Since World War II, every new dollar in tax increases has resulted in Congress’ spending $1.17. Raising taxes has been a license for Congress to spend even more. And, every dollar spent by Congress is a dollar taken out of the economy, and higher taxes leave fewer resources for the private sector to make investments, expand production, and create sustainable jobs. The work of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction should stay focused on reducing spending, not on finding ways to increase revenue to fuel excessive government spending. In addition to supporting reforms to entitlement spending to make sure valued programs are available to future generations of Americans and sustainable for taxpayers, I’ve submitted specific recommendations to the Joint Committee for spending reductions totaling hundreds of millions to even billions of dollars from administrative restructuring, reduction of duplicative and overlapping programs, and unnecessary and wasteful programs under the authority and jurisdiction of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, where I serve as Ranking Member. I also made recommendations to the Joint Committee for my bipartisan legislation that would save $4.8 billion in federal government spending on prescription drugs, including through Medicare and Medicaid, by stopping deals between name-brand and generic drug makers that keep less expensive drugs off the market. I’ve urged the Joint Committee to adopt caps on farm payments, for a savings of $1.5 billion, and backed a goal of saving $23 billion in spending from programs that fall under the jurisdiction of the Senate Committee on Agriculture. The bottom line is that Washington doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.
Friday, November 11, 2011