Voting Reform and Stronger Government Accountability Go Hand in Hand
Americans turned out for the 2020 elections in numbers not seen in over 100 years. Voters made a plan and found a way to make their voices heard.
The process should not have been so difficult for so many. The American people are demanding change — investments in secure polling place technologies, easier voter registration, an end to unfair voter file purges, and the abandonment of partisan gerrymandering that helps too many incumbents avoid answering for their actions because they unfairly draw districts in their own favor.
Fortunately, the U.S. House of Representatives has already passed a bill that would fix some of these problems. H.R. 1, The For The People Act, deserves a hearing in the Senate and presidential signature.
But since elections only take place every few years, Congress must also enact legislation to strengthen the systems that hold the government accountable on a daily basis. And while H.R. 1 does include some ethics reforms, it does not go far enough to shore up our democracy.
We’ve seen an outright assault on the norms and ethical standards on which good government rests. In just the past year, repeated Hatch Act violations by administration officials advertising products and campaigning on taxpayers’ time, have been ignored. Illegal retribution against courageous whistleblowers and truth-tellers, such as Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman and vaccine expert Rick Bright, have gone unpunished. And, numerous federal inspectors general were fired from their oversight positions so senior officials could avoid scrutiny.
The executive branch’s emergency powers were distorted beyond recognition to divert billions of dollars allocated for our military men and women to fund a border wall plan expressly rejected by legislators. And untold millions in emoluments have flowed into Trump Organization coffers from other, often authoritarian, governments seeking favor here.
As a pandemic raged, taxpayer money was subject to extreme levels of waste, fraud and abuse. At least $1.4 trillion in COVID-19 relief funding was spent without the administration providing basic details about who received the money or why.
Once broken, norms alone will not constrain future administrations or deter greed and corruption at the highest levels. Only new transparency and accountability legislation with strict, loophole-free enforcement provisions can regain citizens’ trust.
The Protecting Our Democracy Act, which has been endorsed by nonpartisan good government groups like the Project On Government Oversight, would enact reforms to remedy the accountability gaps exposed over the past few years. The bill includes stronger protections for whistleblowers and inspectors general, bolstered congressional oversight powers, and improved ethics rules — it requires urgent action from Congress.
Trustworthy government is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. Regardless of who wins control of the Senate, the first act of the next Congress must be to fix our democracy. This means ensuring the actions of public officials happen in the full light of day before an American citizenry empowered by free, fair, secure, and open elections.
Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a senior advisor to the Lincoln Project.