(Posted December 1999)
LETTING THE SUN IN
The most basic way for citizens to hold leaders responsible is by voting in elections and by serving on juries in open courtroom proceedings. But these are not the only ways. In the United States and in other democracies, citizens can influence government on a daily basis, not just on election day. Numerous other opportunities can, and should, exist to ensure that both elected and non-elected public officials remain accountable to the people.
In the United States, when executive branch officials get together to conduct government business, they are often required to announce their meetings in advance and to hold them in forums that are open to the public. The law underlying this practice, a federal statute dubbed the "Sunshine Act," enacted in 1976, makes for better, more informed decisions. What's more, the policies that result are perceived as fairer since they reflect broad input from many interested parties. There are similar laws throughout the country at the state level.
In many situations, citizens are allowed to not just attend public meetings, but to comment during the proceedings. For instance, before the Environmental Protection Agency made a decision on a proposed regulation concerning pollution in 1999, it held a series of hearings around the country and listened to hours of testimony. At one session in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a citizen named Randy Hester expressed his feelings, probably shared by many attending the meeting: "As an American, I feel it's one of my inalienable rights to have a voice and I'm so very glad to have this opportunity today."
A popular way for citizens to express their viewpoints is by writing letters or sending electronic messages to elected officials. It's not unusual for members of Congress (a senator or a congressman) to receive thousands of pieces of mail a day about a compelling issue. People organized to promote a cause initiate many letter-writing campaigns. These groups can be made up of business, religious, or labor representatives, or they can be dedicated to issues such as protecting the environment or human health. They also visit legislators to "lobby" them personally.
Transparency in American government can also be found in the rules imposed on people who run for public office. By law, candidates who want to be elected to Congress or the presidency must file detailed reports disclosing how much money they raise and spend. Candidates are required to disclose all individuals and groups who give them contributions of more than $200. There is also a law limiting the amount of money anyone can give directly to a candidate.
Ideally, the purpose of these regulations is to restrict the influence wealthy people and powerful groups have over politicians. Similarly, financial statements are required of federal leaders once they are elected or appointed. On these statements, high officials must disclose the nature and extent of their financial assets to assure there are no conflicts of interest with the job.
Financial disclosure statements are made available to the public and the media, which is shielded from government censorship by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Americans use all of these methods of accountability so they can intelligently exercise their right to vote. And, over the years, thanks both to new laws and improved access to information, it has become easier for citizens, in particular, to obtain information from executive branch agencies and to have influence over those agencies' actions that affect the public.
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