(Posted December 1999)
The heart of American democracy - and of any democracy - is meaningful, active participation by its people in government decisions that touch their lives.
The soul of such a system is the ability of ordinary citizens to hold government officials accountable for their actions. Known as "transparency," this essential democratic process takes many forms, but all allow concerned citizens to see openly into the activities of their government, rather than permitting these processes to be cloaked in secrecy.
The principles underlying transparency in government activity are embodied in the fundamental tenets that have guided the United States since its founding, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And, over time, a body of law, regulation, and practice has grown up that makes it easy for ordinary citizens to have access to some important meetings of government officials, to request and receive government documents, and to have input into government decisions and rule-making. To various degrees, the principles of transparency have taken root at the local, state, and federal level.
In the United States, transparency in judicial proceedings, much of which evolved from English common law, has generally provided the right to a public trial. Likewise, the U.S. Congress has over the course of its history opened itself both to influence from many groups of citizens and organizations, and to comment from knowledgeable experts, officials, and citizens during "hearings" on proposed legislation or on important issues.
In addition, transparency can be found at work in the various federal government."executive branch" agencies that report to the president of the United States. From food, to automobiles, to the environment, everyday lives of citizens are touched in many ways by decisions issued by these agencies. And, increasingly, there are numerous ways for individuals to have an impact on policy-making procedures of the executive branch. Some groups attempt to influence all three branches of the federal government - the judicial, legislative, and executive, simultaneously.
In general, U.S. citizens are free to participate in the political process as much or as little as they wish. Some people become deeply immersed in causes they believe in, either as individuals or, frequently, through groups formed to advocate one or more causes. Others rarely get involved or voice their concerns only when they have individual concerns.
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