Saturday, February 21, 2004

Two Ideas for Honesty and Transparency in Government


How to Generate more Signal and Less Noise

A couple of posts caught my attention, over at Signal+Noise. On 2/13/2004, Christopher Genovese wrote an article called A Better Amendment. On 2/18/2004 he wrote The Party of Higher Taxes. His first point is that there should be a requirement for the President to open up to unscripted questioning by Congress:

The biggest potential hurdle is time, up to about 4 hours total with 40 questioners (but only about 2 hours with 20 questioners per session). This seems challenging at first, but on reflection, I'm just as happy with that. Given the amount of time that Presidents (and Congresspeople) spend in fundraisers and other political events, I think they can spend 4 hours per month on some direct, unscripted interaction. I think this would shake things up mightily, and for the better. Both the administration and Congress would be more visibly accountable. Constituents would have more reason to communicate with their representatives. The process would be unaffected by congressional leaders and their parliamentary tricks. And most importantly, the Presidency would become less insulated.

The second point is:

President Bush is the candidate of tax increases. Yes, you heard me right, tax increases. Oh, not right now, of course, when it is politically inconvenient. But his reckless spending has made it inevitable that your taxes will increase in the near future. At the worst possible moment, in fact. One staggering blow to the American economy and to Americans' livelihoods. It's inevitable, and he knows it. He's just hoping that you don't find out in time.

These are excellent ideas. Combining the two thoughts, I came up with a third:

Let's also make it a requirement that the President include a financial statement in the State of the Union address. He or she would be required to sign it, much like CEO's now have to sign off on the accuracy of the company's financial statements. The financial statement would have to account for anything that results in current or future governmental expenditures. So if bonds are sold, that counts as an expense. Also, the government would be charged depreciation on infrastructure. Thus, if they defer something like highway repairs, it doesn't give the appearance that they actually have saved any money. Putting off necessary expenses, or using bonds to pay for ongoing expenses, are expenses that necessitate an eventual tax increase, but it is an expense that the next Administration has to pay for. Let’s make the administration that generates the expense accountable for it.

Of course, there would be endless argument about the accounting principles to be used, and more opportunity for trickery, but at least it would all be out on the table for everyone to see. You can bet that pundits all over the world would analyze the financial statement carefully. I think that the requirement for direct, personal fiscal accountability just might lead to greater honesty, not to mention transparency.

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