Wednesday, October 22, 2014
A Democratic Republic Requires Trust, and Hence Transparency, from Congressional Candidates
Updated: Edited for grammar and to spell John Adams' name properly.
In my role as political analyst for MTN, I sat down on August 14 with Republican House candidate Ryan Zinke and asked him about releasing his full military records. In case you missed the interview, you can watch it here. I was promised during that interview, and afterwards by Zinke spokesperson Shelby DeMars, that I—along with the AP and Chuck Johnson of Lee Newspapers—would receive the complete set of records. I was also told that this would take some time.
It is now October 22, 2014, and the general election is less than two weeks away. In last night’s House debate in Great Falls, John Adams of the Great Falls Tribune specifically asked state senator Zinke about a fitness report in 1999 that one other former Navy Seal suggests indicates some problems with Zinke’s performance. Zinke did not provide a clear answer as to what was in that report, and suggested that Adams “was unjust, unfair, and shameless” for asking the question.
Adams’ request was not shameless.Watch the exchange here.
I have, thus far, believed that the Zinke campaign would in good faith produce those records in a timely fashion. And I'm hopeful that they will still release those records. And yet, I still have not gotten what was promised. I, like John Adams, am beginning to wonder why.
But, if I may suggest, the problem is bigger than Ryan Zinke and his record as a Navy Seal. The problem hits directly at democratic discourse and accountability in an era when fewer and fewer candidates running for public office have extensive records in elected office. Yet, they ask US to credit them with those experiences as evidence they are suitable for service in higher public office. I believe Ryan Zinke, Steve Daines, John Lewis, and Amanda Curtis all should release as much of their employment records as possible to the press and the public. These experiences, they claim, will make them excellent public servants. If that’s the case, then we—the public who choose them—should be able to make the judgment ourselves of those records.
I think there are three very good reasons for why we should expect transparency from our congressional candidates in this regard.
First, such transparency is not unusual for those seeking public employment of any kind. Take, for example, the information I have to generally produce when applying for academic jobs (both public and private). As a job candidate, I have produced the following for employers:
1. Transcripts (Graduate and undergraduate)
2. A copy of my diploma
3. My cv (an academic version of a resume)
4. References and letters of support from those references
5. Student evaluations of my teaching
6. A teaching statement
7. A research statement
Then, if I’m lucky enough to get a campus interview, I often have to give a research presentation and a teaching demonstration. All of this is to demonstrate that my academic credentials are real and that I am competent as a teacher and researcher.
And, I should say, that a request for my transcripts from Wisconsin or Indiana can be filled within 24 hours. Not more than two or three months.
In running for Congress, candidates use their records to bolster the case for why voters should vote for them and that they deserve the trust of voters. Candidates who have served in elected office often have extensive public records that voters can evaluate and pick apart—and even if they do not, the opposition is more than happy to do it for the voters.
Ryan Zinke’s House campaign biography begins with the headline: Montana’s Proven Leader. He highlights his accomplishments in nine paragraphs. One paragraph details his service in the Montana Senate. Five paragraphs focus on his “distinguished record” of military service. It is clear that this service as a Navy Seal is critical to how he would like voters to evaluate him.
Congressman Daines’ campaign slogan is “More Jobs, Less Government” and much of his campaign pitch focuses on his experience in creating jobs—an experience he says begins with cutting government regulation and red tape. In his campaign biography of seven paragraphs, one full paragraph and the portion of another details his business experience. Only one full paragraph, by contrast, details his experience in Congress. Congressman Daines says he’s a job creator. How exactly did he create jobs during his time at RightNow and how many of those jobs were created in Montana, in the United States, and in other countries?
Democratic candidates John Lewis and Amanda Curtis are not off the hook here. John Lewis spent his professional career working as a staffer for Senator Baucus, and on his campaign webpage, he notes that “working for Senator Max Baucus and with Montana veterans, John spearheaded legislation giving businesses incentives to hire veterans. What began as John’s idea to better serve veterans is now the law of the land.” We, as voters, should have access to the memos staffer Lewis wrote which demonstrate how central he was to this veterans legislation. Lewis should also ask that Senator Baucus release his personnel file so we can see the evaluations he received as a part of the Senator’s staff in Washington and here in Montana. And Amanda Curtis, who touts her experience as a teacher, should demonstrate to us whether she excelled as a teacher or not.
The main point of all of this is not that Ryan Zinke was a bad Navy Seal, that Steve Daines didn’t create jobs as part of an important hi-tech company, that John Lewis wasn’t a competent Senate staffer, and Amanda Curtis wasn’t a great teacher. The point is the voters deserve to have the ability to evaluate those claims for themselves absent a narrative constructed by the campaign, just as my fellow political scientists have the right to examine my academic record to help them decide—without my own spin—that I am the right person or not for their institution. We should be able to determine how distinguished a military career is, what makes job creator successful, and the whether the influence a Senate staffer has on legislative outcomes is substantial.
A second reason why these records should be made available is the nature of who is running for Congress. In the past, the common path for folks running for higher office was to spend considerable time working their way up through a series of public offices, building a public record that voters could evaluate. As our elected officials are increasingly coming from outside the public sphere or, if they do serve in the public eye, with much shorter tenures in office, we need to be able to assess those experiences. At least with public officials, there is a clear public record for all to see. Without a public track record, voters are left to the rhetoric of the candidates—who are clearly not unbiased—to make sense of those private employment experiences. At the very least, they should give us as much access to private records that we can get from those in public employ.
Finally, in an era of political polarization, it is even more important that voters have access to unbiased sources of information to help them make informed political judgments outside the spin room. Instead of blindly accepting what candidates or their opponents tell you, it is even more important to have metrics with which voters can independently judge the records, temperament, and fitness of their candidates for public office. And, even more important, an independent and free press must have access to these records to do just that.
Transparency helps us make better decisions and to have more trust in the democratic process. One of the most important New Deal reforms, in my judgment, was the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission which required publicly traded companies to release particular information in a timely and regular fashion about the company’s operations and budgets. This information allows investors far more confidence when they participate while at the same time providing a somewhat level playing field for investors. This trust has allowed the creation of mutual funds and a retirement system funded largely by investments in the stock market. Shouldn’t we demand the same kind of accountability and openness of those who wish to serve in public office? Shouldn’t we demand more of and from them as investors in the democratic marketplace?