Across the Aisle: Transparency talks

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Sam Topp

In a democracy, elected representatives work for their constituents.

The system relies on four key elements to reliably function: free and fair elections, active participation of citizens, protection of human rights, and rules of law that apply equally to all citizens. I’d like to add a fifth element I believe played a large role in the 2016 presidential election.

Transparency — or the public’s right to know.

We place democratically elected officials in positions of power under the notion they will work to improve our nation at the will of voters. Under recent Republican majority, however, this has not been the case, whether because of lobbyists, failure to face disagreements or a disregard for the democratic system as a whole.

“A principle tenet of our government is that it is for the people, and by the people,” my conservative friend Manny said. “The people of this country have a right to know how our government is working to protect their freedoms.”

Republicans aren’t the only ones at fault with regards to transparency. Hillary Clinton’s loss can be attributed, at least partially, to her email controversy and controlled media presence, and the Barack Obama administration censored or outright denied more Freedom of Information Act requests than any previous administration.

I view the Democratic party as a group that usually takes the moral high ground, especially on social issues throughout history. A lack of transparency hurts the credibility of Democrats and helps feed the narrative that both parties are, in reality the same.

Manny said he views government transparency as an extension of philosopher John Locke’s interpretation of social contract theory. Citizens relinquish some of their freedoms by submitting to laws and regulations and in return have their rights protected by their government. If the contract is not fulfilled, citizens rescind their part of the deal and work toward establishing a new government.

“Preferably by electing better officials,” Manny said jokingly.

Locke’s take on social contracts includes information our government deems necessary for public discourse as well as information that must be protected. For instance, our country’s general and departmental financial performance is released to the public annually. These reports contain high-level details of our government’s financial health and allow regular citizens to see which allocations they would like to see improved upon.

In contrast, publicizing certain information can conflict with national security interests. Military operations, treaty negotiations and classified information regarding international terrorism can all cause negative effects if they become widely known. Just as there is the public’s right to know, there equally exists the right for the public not to know.

Manny and I, traditional conservative and traditional liberal, agree on what the basis of transparency means on a government-wide scale. In the same vein, we agree on the need for transparency from both our current administration and President Donald Trump, himself.

One of the most important things to me when writing this column is to keep the debate between conservatives and liberals open without becoming obsessed with the Trump administration. However, with bipartisan issues of transparency, I believe it is fair to scrutinize Trump’s transparency in office.

Historically, presidential candidates have released their tax returns to the public. Originating from President Richard Nixon’s tax dodge in the late 1960s, a candidate’s tax returns allow the American public to see their potential president’s financial dealings to determine any illegal activity before deciding if they are fit for office.

“Not releasing the tax returns is highly unusual,” Manny said. “Although there is a historical precedent of releasing tax returns, there is no law requiring that he release them. That being said, I would prefer to see the returns released in the name of transparency.”

Ignoring any issues regarding the ongoing investigation into the president’s alleged ties with Russia, I too, would prefer to see Trump’s tax returns released in the name of the system we seem to be having issues with — called “a democracy.”

The president has the same rights as the public. The president follows the same laws as the public. The president should have to undergo the same procedures for employment any citizen would follow.

Every citizen in the United States is innocent until proven guilty of a crime. But it sure as hell doesn’t look good when you do everything in your power to deny this sort of information, especially because of the historical precedent surrounding it. 

Sam Topp, ’18, is an associate news editor for The Brown and White. He can be reached at sjt213@lehigh.edu. 

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