Blame Game: Holding ourselves and our politicians accountable when we fail

I’m going to say something I hope I don’t regret: The Occupy Wall Street protesters have a point.

Deep breath.

Ok.

I’m not talking about their anti-capitalism Communist Manifesto playbook-style rhetoric or the redistribution of wealth to pay for programs like universal health care or free college tuition.

I’m talking about accountability.

The government has lost its accountability to voters because of the ability for big businesses to have such a controlling interest in the way government works.

More than that though, there is this culture of insulation in Washington and to some degree even more local governments. People in charge tend to like to be in charge and don’t like their authority being questioned.

Furthermore, this is why Democrats like to grow government because it only enhances their own power.

But this lack of accountability runs like a crevasse through the bedrock of our political system, permeating every facet from local government up to the executive branch of our nation’s federal systems.

I’ll give you an example. Last night, at a meeting in a small town in the heart of our nation, sat a group of village trustees.

In an effort to carve out an extra $100,000 to pay for road repairs, one of the trustees had sent out a list of suggested cuts to department heads. He asked that the heads of those departments defend that money in the 2012 budget.

Another trustee called into question one of the department’s responses: $7,000 for travel reimbursements for training, in the budget of the paid on-call fire department.

Over the last several years, the fire department had never used more than $500, yet $7,000 was being asked for.

In a village with a $10 million tax levy, $7,000 is not just a drop in the bucket.

When pressed about what that money was used for, the deputy fire chief couldn’t answer. The fire chief hadn’t defended his budget regarding the village board’s proposal, nor did he bother showing up to the meeting.

This was not money for the training itself, the lifeblood of any paid on-call fire department. It wouldn’t affect any necessary certifications the department needed to remain solvent.

The money was eventually approved, despite a motion to remove it from the full budget, but only because the village board decided that having the option to use the money for public safety was more important than proving a point about accountability.

Responsibility by default.

This was almost a great lesson. The trustees took the time to analyze every line of the budget, scrutinize it and decide how necessary it really was, no matter how big or small.

On the other hand, they used assumptions – in this case that having the option to spend the money on public safety would get used for something good – to put money in the budget that a department had no history of actually using.

Congress does the reverse: they don’t scrutinize any programs,  but if the departments don’t spend the money budgeted for them, they lose it.

That’s half good. An entity that doesn’t spend money shouldn’t get any. On the other hand, this policy incentivizes spending rather than responsibility.

Tell me why you need something and if we believe you need it, you’ll get it. If you want to ensure a body spends efficiently, reward them for coming in under budget. If Congress would actually scrutinize these budgets, they could likewise prevent those bodies from presenting bloated budgets in order to receive bonuses for coming in under an overinflated budgets.

Promote responsibility by rewarding it. Find the most efficient use for our tax dollars by making sure government spends it in a way that actually results in effective services for its people.

That’s what Congress gets paid to do, but not what they do.

Congress isn’t accountable for what it spends. We’ll just raise taxes or cut programs.

This false choice that our modern political structure has created, the aforementioned split between higher taxes and fewer programs, cuts at the very foundation of democracy.

Attitude reflects leadership. Responsible spending is the answer on all fronts.

We can’t arbitrarily raise taxes without first deciding if we are spending the right amounts on the rights things and whether or not those systems we’re paying for are structured in the best possible way.

It’s the responsibility of our elected officials to dig through the mire of political jockeying for pork barrel spending and subsidies in order to decide where the money we have is best spent.

There’s no inherent good to cutting programs either. A smaller government isn’t automatically a better government, nor is it necessarily even a less expensive one.

A more efficient government, one that maximizes its resources for the benefit of the people while also being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars. That ought to be goal.

The suggestions for balancing the budget, like declaring sitting elected officials who fail to come up with a reasonable budget ineligible for re-election, only offer incentives for politicians to take a deal, not be responsible.

Accountability comes from one place: the people.

We have to hold officials accountable, which means the proliferation of media – even biased media – helps this process. Watchdog groups on the right and the left keep our political structure moving by creating accountability.

But that information means nothing if it doesn’t affect voting behavior, or community involvement. Our activism, our ability to incite change, is only as efficient as our own self-efficacy.

You don’t like the political system, you think its morally (and literally) bankrupt? Take a look in the mirror and you might find an answer as to why.

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