Our Populist forebears in Oklahoma feared the concentration of power in one pair of hands. Therefore, they designed our state government with a system closer to the cabinet systems of other English-speaking democracies than our federal presidential system. Unfortunately, all too often this diffusion of power has led to a lack of accountability in our menagerie of statewide elected officials.
If one of the governor’s appointees were to engage in corruption or flaunt the considered will of the people, the governor could be held to account. However, if the labor commissioner, treasurer, state auditor, etc. were to act up (not outside the realm of possibility), what could be done?
The answer lies in the balance of powers at the heart of the American system. The Legislature has the power of the purse over the executive branch ” it can wield it in a more creative way than it has to date. When I was administrative rule counsel at the Oklahoma House of Representatives, the sunset process brought the heads and other representatives of countless boards and commissions before our committee. They were obliged to plead for their continued existence before a panel of relatively well-informed members of the people’s House.
This same process can be used to scrutinize those officials who, after garnering hundreds of thousands of votes, are all too often forgotten until the next campaign. The Legislature ” I would suggest the House ” should use its budgetary power to compel the statewide elected officials to submit to questioning once a month before a designated committee during the legislative session. (This or substantially similar processes have been used to great effect in state and provincial legislatures in Australia and Canada.) Those officials who refuse should have their budgets slashed. To those officials who either oppose such a process, or wait for the Legislature to create a legal obligation, I have but one question: What do you have to hide?
Already there are moves afoot to create similar accountability for judges in Oklahoma. Republican legislators are pushing to force the governor to submit his appointments to certain judicial seats, including the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Court, to the consent of the Senate. Just last week I received a mass e-mail from a trial lawyer ordering all recipients to call their senators to protest this perceived outrage. I imagine the author of the e-mail believes that our governors for the foreseeable future will be as amenable to wishes of the plaintiff’s bar as the current occupant of that office.
Thankfully, the age of governing behind closed doors is coming to an end, and good riddance. As Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
If we as Oklahomans truly want clean, effective government, the necessary prerequisite is open government. In line with the reforms proposed above, a new generation of open candidates and governmental officials will let in even more sunlight through clear disclosure of expenditures and the burden of regulation. In the meantime, it falls to us as citizens of Oklahoma to force those we entrust with public responsibility to discharge that responsibility well. Not through futile chasing after minor scandals, but through persistent efforts to demand that politicians keep their promises will Oklahoma get the government its people deserve.
Reese is an attorney who lives with his wife and son in Oklahoma City.