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Thursday, May 31, 2012
Why Local Governments Lose Touch with the People, Part I

Introduction. The legislative branches of our governments are supposed to represent the people in making law and overseeing the activities of the other branches of government, especially the executive. In too many cases the executive branch usurps legislative functions and interferes with representation.

I wish I had a dollar for every time in my adult life someone has complained to me, or within earshot of me, that some local government is unresponsive to the people and out of touch with their needs and priorities. I hear this about higher levels of government, too, but, after using mostly the US government to explain and illustrate my points, I'll focus my analysis on the local level, where think tanks and the media pay much less attention. The explanation is in today's post; the following two posts apply it to local governments.

In many cases there's a basic, structural reason why a local government seem to be out of touch with the people: It has surrendered some, perhaps most, of its key representative functions to the executive branch of the same government. To do so is to detach itself from the people who elected it. This is more than the sense of detachment I feel when I am in the minority on an issue where the majority prevails. It's more than the alienation I feel when an issue important to me proves to be less so to a governing body, which must consider all of a government's functions and also grapple with a diverse set of constituents and their many issues.

My discussion of this problem in local governments will make more sense if we first consider some essential history and principles at the national level. Before we're done, I'll have used the word tyranny, and not casually. When a government is detached from the people in the manner I describe, essential safeguards against tyranny are lost. Without them, tyrannical tendencies begin to creep in, even if the leaders in power at a given time are not inclined to tyranny. Benign leaders may welcome the subversion of protective structures and processes in the name of efficiency and economy. The people may not appreciate the danger until new, malignant leaders take power and exploit the absence of key restraints on their power.

We Had a Revolution About This

One of the American Revolution's rallying cries was, "No taxation without representation!" The British government was imposing significant taxes on the American colonies, but the colonies had no formal representation among the decision makers. It's not that the colonists were opposed to taxation itself. They simply insisted, as Americans have expected since, that laws be made and taxes imposed by bodies which represent the people who are to be taxed and regulated.

The revolutionary theory here is that government power comes from the people -- all the people, as a whole -- not from God through the person of a monarch or high priest, or from a ruling class or party. As to governmental power, at least, the people are sovereign; hence the term popular sovereignty, to say nothing of the telling phrase, "We the People."

We Had a Convention About It, Too

Let's consider "We the People" for a moment. These are the first three words in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. What "We the People" are doing there is creating a government and delegating certain specific powers to it, while reserving other powers to ourselves and other levels of government.

In the national governnment we created, the lawmaking (legislative) branch is also the most representative branch. All 535 members of the US House of Representatives and US Senate are elected by the people in their congressional districts and states, respectively. Congress makes the laws, including tax laws. The President, who is indirectly elected by the people, signs or vetos what Congress produces, and then the President and the rest of the executive branch execute the laws. In the process, ideally, the executive branch establishes only such rules, procedures, and regulations of its own as are necessary to implement the will of the people's representatives in the legislative branch.


Bear in mind that Congress also has a function we call oversight. The sense is to oversee, not to overlook. The agencies, departments, and programs Congress creates and funds are almost all part of the executive branch. Most of the policies Congress institutes either regulate or are executed by the executive branch. In its oversight role Congress monitors, supervises, and evaluates all of this, mostly through committee hearings, investigations, and studies.

Congressional oversight of the executive branch is a crucial part of the checks and balances in the American system of government, but it is also widely accepted as a necessary function of legislative bodies generally. It is so basic to a legislature's function that we may reasonably regard it as an implied power, derived from the very existence of a legislative body, whether or not it is codified in a constitution or lesser statute.

We might disagree about the effectiveness or the politics of congressional oversight of a given agency or policy. But I suspect we can agree on the necessity of legislative oversight in principle. It makes perfect sense for those who make a law or create and fund an agency to follow up, to examine the results of their work, to insure that it is working (or has been implemented) as they intended. Moreover, we want our lawmakers to be aware of existing policies and their effects, as they consider creating new law and amending existing law.

There is another consideration. The elected legislators are the people's agents and representatives. If we really believe that the people are sovereign, then the need for the people, through their agents, to have active oversight of all aspects of their government should be self-evident.

It should be self-evident, but it's not. Often in local governments the executive branch resists and obstructs legislative oversight. In some cases legislators don't even realize that oversight is one of their necessary functions. They've never been allowed, expected, or taught to do it, and they've been trained (usually by the executive branch) not to rock the (executive) boat.

Not Just in Washington

Article IV of the US Constitution requires each state to have a "republican form of government." Accordingly, state governments are similar to the federal government in their basic structure, with legislative branches consisting of the people's elected representatives. At the local level, our legislative bodies -- city councils, school boards, and the like -- also consist of representatives we elect to make laws and impose taxes. We understand all of these bodies to be representative of the people, who are the source of political power at the local level, too.

Pollsters tell us that less than 20 percent of voters approve of the job the US Congress is doing now. Maybe this rampant disapproval makes people less inclined to worry about the executive branch's attempts to bypass Congress. But there's plenty to worry about. Upon taking office, President Obama surrounded himself with hundreds of "tsars" -- a dubious title -- in policy-making roles, who are neither elected nor subject to confirmation by the Senate. And when Congress has refused to impose regulations he advocates, such as draconian environmental rules, he has, more than other presidents, issued executive orders or has directed federal agencies, such as the EPA, to institute similar regulations without the inconvenience of working with Congress. In other words, we have unelected bureaucrats making laws the people's elected representatives refuse to make.

Structurally, this is tyranny in its most basic American definition: legislation without representation. Even if we stipulate for a moment some things I do not believe, that the President means well, in the sense of protecting our freedom, and that these things he's doing without Congress are good things which need to be done, structurally it's still tyranny, even if it seems benign.

It's time to remind you again that this explanation is only prelude to a look at local governments. The same potential for tyranny exists at the local level. The formula is the same: The executive branch bypasses or marginalizes the legislators elected by the people. If you know what you're looking for, there's a good chance you can find it happening in a city or school district near you.

Free people, who are committed to constitutional government, should object to this tyranny at all levels of government, even if they find the present results inoffensive. Times, rulers, and people change. Sooner or later -- probably sooner -- those who like the present fruits of bypassing constitutional safeguards will wish for the return of those safeguards to restrain policy-makers with different ideas and intentions. 

In my next post, I'll suggest some things to look for in our local governments, symptoms of the abuses I'm describing. In the following post, I'll show you how bad things are in this respect in a local school district near me, using its own publicly-available documents.

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