Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced the creation of a bipartisan House committee to oversee the Trump administration’s coronavirus relief programs. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who will lead the panel, clarified that the committee will be “forward-looking” and would not be examining the administration’s preparation or response to the crisis. Pelosi added that the committee’s work would instead “protect against price-gouging, profiteering and political favoritism.”
These statements are worrisome but potentially defensible if we’re simply talking about a division of labor, whereby the scrutiny of pandemic preparations is undertaken by a separate, empowered committee or commission. In light of current political realities, the House of Representatives is the only political body in a position to undertake credible oversight.
This trend has accelerated to such an extent in recent years that our very system of constitutional governance is under genuine threat.
But I’m not sure that this is the case. Rather, recent American history suggests that U.S. political culture has developed an aversion to high-level accountability. This trend has accelerated to such an extent in recent years — under presidents of both parties — that our very system of constitutional governance, predicated on a separation of powers, is under genuine threat.
Whether investigating the excesses of the post 9/11 “war on terror” — including America’s use of torture, indefinite administrative detention and loosened rules of engagement — or the (illegal) 2003 invasion of Iraq or the 2008 financial crisis or, more recently, the serial abuses of power of the Trump administration, political leaders have often taken the easy road. While the administration of the U.S. criminal justice system has become increasingly draconian for common criminals, elite accountability, at both a moral and criminal level, has collapsed. The health of our democracy has suffered for it — and now our public health is suffering, too.
Of course, the two most high-profile attempts at accountability during the Trump era — Robert Mueller’s investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election and the impeachment of the president for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — were stymied by reflexive Republican instincts. Despite the imposed shortcomings, both processes were necessary and fulfilled several important goals, including the appropriate discharge of institutional duties and the establishment of a historical record of wrongdoing. Their failings should not dissuade leaders from taking on their duties once again.
The decisions of national leaders, particularly during times of crisis, have literal life-and-death consequences. And while the criminal justice system is not a perfect model, many of the same goals apply, namely assigning blame, creating methods of deterrence and establishing a historical record. This is all the more true when governmental mismanagement rises to such an extent that we can safely analogize to criminal negligence.
Accountability is inherently both a backward- and a forward-looking exercise. This is certainly true in the context of our current crisis.
Accountability is inherently both a backward- and a forward-looking exercise. This is certainly true in the context of our current crisis. Any efforts to understand our present failings and prepare more effectively for future crises require an assessment of how and why our original crisis management failed. It is perhaps stating the obvious, but learning lessons requires us to collectively grapple with what went wrong.
Simulations and policy planning can help prepare for the future, but they are bound by the limits of our imaginations. Dealing with the extremes of an actual crisis exposes vulnerabilities and provides an opportunity for learning and correction. The importance of that kind of corrective process is heightened by the likely trajectory of the pandemic and its longer-term ramifications. Based on the views of public health experts, this crisis will not be over in the near term.
Not all of these deficiencies can be immediately ascribed to the Trump administration, as the current crisis is being exacerbated by certain longstanding trends, such as vulnerabilities stemming from a globalized supply chain for critical goods and a fragmented, under-resourced and unequal health care system. And, of course, any administration would have struggled to deal with a global pandemic.
Governance is a serious and complex undertaking, and we should expect imprecision and mistakes, but as citizens we must hold our leaders accountable when failures of leadership represent a reckless disregard for the common good. The denialism and inaction of the Trump administration and the deliberate disregard of global coordination in the face of a rising threat are now being measured in excess and avoidable deaths. Despite the manifest shortcomings of the U.S. health care system and the hollowing out of the administrative state, the institutional capacity and medical expertise of the United States are still such that effective mobilization coupled with effective political leadership should have avoided massive amounts of suffering in terms of public health and economic well-being.
Accountability, however, is not simply a question of governance, preparedness and institutional capacity but an important tool for redressing wrongdoing and pursuing justice. We should understand oversight and accountability as opportunities to fully establish a historical record of how and why our national response failed while also providing an explanation for those who have suffered from those failures. The victims are entitled to a truthful and full accounting of how they or their loved ones were let down by their government.
Simultaneously, aggressive accountability efforts are an important deterrent to future wrongdoing. Government officials and national leaders should not be allowed to lose sight of constitutional responsibility, and those duties should weigh heavily in the face of corrupt motives and the reckless endangerment of the people they serve. Public accountability is a necessary process if we hope to inculcate the importance of those duties. Shame is a powerful tool.
Of course, accountability is a highly political process, but it does not have to be highly politicized. We are owed answers, both for the future health of our society and for our ability to tackle the generational challenges posed by the current crisis.
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