Rebuilding Trustworthy Politics in a Post-Truth Age

by Nadia Hilliard – UPK author of The Accountability State; US Federal Inspectors General and the Pursuit of Democratic Integrity (April, 2017)

It will not surprise American voters that the Oxford English Dictionary declared the 2016 Word of the Year to be “post-truth.” The term resonates with all sides of the American electorate who, confronted with “fake news” and “alternative facts,” have struggled to know which facts are trustworthy enough to ground their political opinions and decisions. Yet while partisanship is always a feature of politics, it is rare for partisan arguments to be decoupled so starkly from truth, and for citizens to be so untrusting of the media and public officials. To whom can voters – and elected officials – turn for legitimate facts and narratives in this era of post-truth politics?

accountability-stateInspectors General (IGs) have quietly operated under the radar in the federal bureaucracy since the late seventies, auditing, investigating, inspecting, and acting as in-house management consultants. They are presidential appointees, but are statutorily required to be non-partisan, and enjoy bipartisan support. They are, moreover, Congress’s “eyes and ears” in the executive branch, and depend on congressional approval for their funding. But they are also full members of their host departments, and report directly to their department head, and indirectly, to the president. This divided loyalty reinforces their independence from any single institutional or partisan commitment.

Although individual IGs have at times been mired in scandal (recall the VA IG’s travails in 2015, or the State Department’s disgraced IG in 2007), their profile and reputation has grown in recent decades, and they are cited more and more frequently and positively in the press. More important, the outcomes of their reviews are trusted by Congress, and serve as an alternative source of facts to the host of incompatible narratives bandied about in the blogosphere. They are respected on both sides of the aisle, providing political leaders as polarised as Darryl Issa (R-CA) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) with the rare opportunity to agree in their support of IG work.

Two major IG reviews are now underway to shed light on recent landmark political phenomena: FBI Director James Comey’s public suggestion of wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton in the weeks leading up to the presidential election, and the administrative unfolding of the Trump administration’s Travel Ban. While IG reviews are certainly used to partisan ends after their release, the best reviews refrain from drawing conclusions as a prosecutor would.  For instance, State Department IG Steve Linick’s June 2016 review of Hillary Clinton’s emails provided informational fodder for both Clinton’s supporters and detractors: while some media outlets focused on the finding that Clinton had indeed used a private server extensively, and criticized her heavily, others emphasized that the review unearthed long-standing State Department practices of avoiding department servers, and that she had not in fact broken any laws or even contravened any departmental policies.

1024x1024Justice IG Michael Horowitz, spearheading the Comey review, and DHS IG John Roth, leading the Travel Ban review, have both earned their laurels as trusted, rigorous IGs. The Justice Department Office of Inspector General has long served as a beacon for rigorous, non-partisan reviews accepted and respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, and Horowitz’s reviews have followed in this tradition.  Similarly, the DHS OIG investigation of the implementation of the travel ban equally promises to establish an accurate picture of the administrative decisions shaping the roll out of the recent executive order.

Arguably, the IGs are very well poised to investigate both of these events. IGs focus on procedure and adherence to rules and norms above all, and in both cases, much at stake regards adherence to protocol. Whether or not Comey broke department policy by announcing his suspicions of Clinton is a question separate from the possible partisan motivations he might have had in doing so, just as the legal status of departmental compliance with Trump’s executive order and the subsequent nullificatory court order is distinct from the question of overall discriminatory intent. It is not the IGs’ role to prosecute, or otherwise to initiate a political battle. Their immediate procedural focus permits the IGs to avoid the wider political significance of the events when constructing the narrative, leaving the political battle in the hands of elected officials, the media, and citizens. This deserves to be emphasized: IGs are unelected bureaucrats, and their legitimacy depends on their commitment to non-partisan work.  The facts need to be established outside of the political fray before any political battle can begin. Yet the political significance of their reviews cannot be understated.

If these reviews are welcomed as trustworthy sources of fact, there remains a pressing political question, with grave importance for the integrity of the political system: will these investigations go through without undue interference? Murmurs that the Trump administration contacted a handful of IGs to ask for their resignation prior to his inauguration bubbled into a hearing, and ultimately led to the Trump team’s abandonment of these plans.  Traditionally – at least since their appearance in 1978, and not withstanding Reagan’s routinely criticized, comprehensive sacking of the first IG class in 1981 – new administrations do not replace entire cohorts of IGs.  Stability of office and continuity of leadership affect an IG’s capacity to provide robust, non-partisan oversight of federal departments and agencies.  Despite having made challenges to other political institutions designed to keep the executive in check, the Trump administration has thus far refrained from a wholesale ousting of the current IG class. Yet the possibility remains for the president to oust any single IG – especially ones who investigate sensitive topics or unearth unsavory details about his policies.

The first step in rebuilding a functional political system, including restoring a healthy and vibrant ideological center, is to have common institutions trusted by all. In this post-truth era, we need trusted public intermediaries who not only have unfettered, protected access to the sources of fact – the relevant documents and interviews – but also independence and a commitment to offering non-partisan narratives to Congress and the public.  It is rare in this polarized age for an institution to command such bipartisan support and enthusiasm, and even more so for specific individuals – such as Horowitz and Roth, among many others – to command the respect and praise of both sides of the aisle simultaneously. The IGs’ legitimacy provides a starting block for rebuilding a healthy politics.

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Nadia Hilliard is Junior Research Fellow in politics at Balliol College, University of Oxford and a post-doctoral researcher at City University in London. Her book, The Accountability State; US Federal Inspectors General and the Pursuit of Democratic Integrity, will be released in April, 2017.

Huelskamp’s Defeat: Did Kansas Aggies Get their Revenge?

5726782ca3c5b_previewBy Christopher Bosso

The 1st Kansas is one of the nation’s largest and most rural House districts, stretching from the suburbs of Topeka over 300 miles westward along the Nebraska border to Colorado and curling south another 200 miles to the Oklahoma state line.

The Big First is also Agriculture: vast fields of wheat and grain sorghum interspersed with “concentrated feeding operations” of thousands of head of beef cattle. Not surprisingly, those representing the 1st in Congress, including Representative (later Senator) Robert Dole and Representative (later Senator) Pat Roberts, were devoted to and left indelible fingerprints on agricultural policy – and to making sure that Kansas got its fair share of federal funds.

In 2010 the district’s voters elected state senator Tim Huelskamp to fill a seat left empty when fellow Republican Jerry Moran won the Senate seat vacated when, Sam Brownback, also a Republican, became governor. Huelskamp beat out five other Republicans with 34.5% of the vote in a hotly contested primary, after which he went on to an easy general election victory in a district that voted Democrat only once (1953-1955) in its history.

Huelskamp grew up on a farm in Fowler – 2010 population, 590 – and like many future members of Congress had an early fascination with politics and public policy. He returned to Kansas in 1995 after finishing his doctorate in political science and jumped into politics, getting elected a year later as one of the youngest state senators in decades. He was reelected three times with ease, largely on his conservative values on issues like abortion and same sex marriage as well as his views that government was too big and too expensive. Perhaps reflecting training in a Catholic seminary, or maybe just because he is contrarian by nature, Huelskamp also showed a willingness to criticize fellow Republicans he thought weren’t hewing to those values, to the point that in 2003 he was removed from the key Senate Ways and Means Committee for clashing with party leaders. His reputation with voters for his uncompromising defense of his – and their – beliefs, aided by the support of national conservative groups, enabled Huelskamp to enter Congress in 2010 as part of the “tea party” wave that gave Republicans control of the House.

Huelskamp promptly claimed the district’s “traditional” seat on the House Agriculture Committee. However, anyone who thought that he went to Washington to promote Kansas agriculture were soon disabused. To the surprise of no one who paid attention to his career, Huelskamp fast became a thorn in the side of House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans leaders. He also refused to compromise on cutting federal spending, even when the all-important Farm Bill was up for reauthorization. In fact, despite pleas by Kansas agricultural groups to support passage, Huelskamp and fellow House conservatives blocked action on the Farm Bill throughout the 112th Congress (2011-2012).

In December 2012 Speaker Boehner, furious at Huelskamp’s obstinacy, booted him from the Budget Committee and, to make the lesson hit closer to home, the Agriculture Committee. The Big First now had no seat on Agriculture for the first time in (recent?) history. Huelskamp, along with the other three members of the Kansas House delegation – the most conservative in the country – also famously voted against the final version of the Agricultural Act of 2014 – the Farm Bill! – despite pleas by Kansas agricultural leaders to support the compromise measure.

All of this should have hurt Huelskamp at home. Boehner certainly hoped that Big First voters would elect a more agreeable Republican. But they didn’t: Huelskamp survived a primary challenge by an underfunded opponent and won easy re-election in 2014. So did his three compatriots, no doubt because they adhered to the set of values on which their supporters sent them to Congress in the first place.

It’s August 2016. Huelskamp again faced a primary challenge. This time he got thumped, losing by 13 points to political novice Roger Marshall. Barring a cataclysm in November, Marshall will be the Big First’s next representative.

Many saw Huelskamp’s ouster as the revenge of Kansas Agriculture. Indeed, former Huelskamp allies at the Kansas Farm Bureau and Kansas Livestock Association supported Marshall, as did the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Association of Wheat Growers. Not surprisingly, Marshall pledges to regain the 1st’s rightful place on the House Agriculture Committee.

Yet Huelskamp’s loss may have more to do with Republican Party politics than with the power of agriculture interests. The primary was like the Spanish Civil War – the warm-up for World War II – with each combatant backed by outside powers using the two as proxies in a bigger fight. Huelskamp had the support of National Right to Life, the National Rifle Association, and conservative groups like Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity. Marshall, no liberal, was backed by what passes these days for Establishment Republicanism – notably the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. These groups poured nearly $3 million into the race, most of it fueling an arms race of television and radio ads. The money mattered: few challengers can beat an incumbent, even one with Huelskamp’s negatives, without it.

While Huelskamp alienated voters, he lost only because he faced a well-funded opponent in a one-on-one race funded by outside groups with their own agendas. Agriculture got its revenge, but only as a result of that larger war within the Republican Party.

Christopher Bosso is professor of public policy at Northeastern University. His areas of interest include food and environmental policy, science and technology policy, and the governance of emerging technologies. His newest book, Framing the Farm Bill: Interests, Ideology, and the Agricultural Act of 2014 will be published by UPK next year.

Library of Law and Liberty Podcast Features UPK’s “Congress” by Louis Fisher

9780700622115Library of Law and Liberty converses with UPK author Louis Fisher on his book, “Congress: Protecting Individual Rights”.  Library of Law and Liberty states, “Fisher argues that contrary to popular belief, Congress, not the Court, has been the foremost champion in protecting the rights of racial minorities, children, Native Americans, and religious liberties.”

Louis Fisher on Congress and Protecting Individual Rights

5829925604_36b5677f9e_bAt a time when Congress seems determined to set new lows for being dysfunctional, it may seem strange to publish a book that explains how lawmakers for more than two centuries have protected the rights of blacks, women, children, religious liberty, Native Americans, and other minorities. The purpose is not merely to give credit to the legislative institution and understand how its performance compares favorably to the record of the executive and judicial branches. The book underscores the evident risks of putting our faith solely in Presidents and the Supreme Court. Such a decision moves us from democracy to a government with two elected officials in the executive branch and none in the judiciary. This book does more than remind us of what Congress once accomplished. It encourages a debate on specific steps needed to strengthen U.S. democracy and restore the capacity of members of Congress to discharge their constitutional duties. The intent of the book is to stimulate a dialogue on how we can protect and renew what the Framers hoped to create: a system of self-government.

–Written by Louis Fisher, a Scholar in Residence at the Constitution Project and author of the forthcoming book, “Congress: Protecting Individual Rights.”