Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Author: Jakub Zientala
The modern world is divided by three types of government systems: totalitarian, authoritarian and liberal democracies. Democratic order dominated the landscape of international relationships after peril of the Cold War – nowadays over 90 countries are classified as democratic republics. Democratic rule spans all over the world from North to South, from Latin America to South East-Asia. Overall, 'free countries', as classified by Freedom House, constitute 55% of all states, nonetheless only 13% of the world population enjoys access to free press. And this number has been in decline for few years (Freedom House Report, 2017).
The West is considered a bastion of liberal democracy, being its primary defender. Before dwelling deeper into the topic of this article it should be explained what defines a democratic country. There are several principles that separate democracy from authoritarian or totalitarian states; the first is the rule of law. The constitution is the highest law of the land and the judicial branch closely watches that the two other branches (legislative and executive) of government do not breach it or overstep their authority. Due to the rule of law, the legal status of citizens in democracies is the same despite differences in socio-economic status. The second important principle that defines a democratic republic is less obvious and not always codified by the law: a transparent government. Citizens have access to a large majority of governmental records unless said records have been classified e.g. due to reasons of national security. Equally, the process of legislation should be transparent and financial statements of the elected officials made publicly available.
These two rules form the basis of today's understanding of traditional Western values of liberal democracy. That set of beliefs, which has bound together the Transatlantic Community since the end of WW1, recently has been put to question by various groups of interest. The West suffers from many difficulties, such as the rise of extreme right and populist movements, growing nationalist resentments and a stagnant economy. All of these factors contribute to the decline of confidence of people in their governments and the liberal democratic system. In spite of these issues, the major problem that plagues both the Old Continent and New World is the widening income gap, between the wealthiest and the rest of society (University of Pittsburgh, 2014). In 1960, a factory worker earned about one/sixth to one/ninth of what the CEO earned, nowadays average CEOs earn about 70 times more than the regular worker of the same company. This issue is a key factor of mistrust between the elites and the rest of the society (PayScale, 2017).
Americans are traditionally mistrustful of their government; therefore the idea of a small government is very popular among the citizens of the USA. Unlike Europeans, Americans don’t rely on their government with matters such as social welfare. When the problem of wealth distribution is combined with blurry relations between the rich elites (multinational corporations, banks, millionaires, etc.) and the government, it is a recipe for a long fermenting social unrest. Since the start of the banking crisis in 2008 and the resulting fall of the international economy, growing dissatisfaction of the people with the performance of their government and its murky contacts with the elites has been observed. The rise of the 99% Movement, the creation of WikiLeaks and revelations of Mr Snowden are only the primary examples of the results of increasing social tensions in the USA.
Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Elections in the USA with his slogan: 'draining the swamp'. He pledged to remove all the corrupted individuals in the federal government and the Congress and to lead America back to its former glory. Yet, so far little can be said about the efficiency of Mr Trump's policies in this regard. A lot of mystery surrounds President Trump and his circle; a lot of their dealings remain unclear or completely shrouded in secrecy. The most often mentioned issues are his relationship with Russia and the fact that while he remains in office, he still profits from revenues of his company. Further, it should be noted that President Trump still didn’t release his tax statements. Some experts claim it constitutes the foundation of the impeachment procedure (Reich, 2017).
Interestingly, the average US congressman or senator is worth $1.03 million (Choma, 2015). It is an amount of wealth equal to 18 average US-American households. This incites serious concerns about the state of US-American democracy. In late 2014, a study of scholars from Northwestern University (Prof Benjamin I. Page) and Princeton University (Prof Martin Gilens) found that the USA is slowly turning into oligarchy. In their study they concluded that 'economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence' (Gilens and Page, 2014). In the analysis of 1,779 survey questions on public policy issues asked between 1981 and 2002, they determined that organised groups of influence representing people with high incomes saw their preferred policies enacted by lawmakers. A policy proposal that is lobbied by someone representing interests of the elite has significantly higher chances of becoming law (45% according to the study), whereas a policy change suggested on behalf of the average Americans has an 18% chance of passing the house (Gilens and Page, 2014). The prime example of corporate interest becoming law over citizens’ concerns is the Citizens United proposal, where the US Supreme Court ruled that legal entities such as multinational corporations can enjoy the same privileges as private citizens including funding of political and/or election campaigns.
Summarising what has been stated in this article so far, the following paragraph goes back to the issue of transparency of the elected officials. In doing so, one needs to be aware that lobbying rules in the USA are different than those in the EU or in its Member States. Numerous members of the Congress and Senate, as well as the White House administration are millionaires, therefore are part of the elite (Smith, 2016). And when growing income disproportion is added, as well as the decrease in value of real wages for a typical American household, the issue of transparency of the government becomes a real concern. Issue of transparency of the elected and governmental officials is very sensitive in area of tax statements or records of proceedings of Congress and its Committees, as they allow monitoring wealth and detecting corruption. However, this issue seems to be of little concern to Congress.
On 3 January, the Congress adopted new rules of proceedings, according to which other bills are adopted. This seemingly normal procedure has escaped attention of the mainstream media. The bill, adopted as H. Res. 5 – 115th Congress, proposed by a Majority Leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, among vast incalculable number of amendments contains one, very interesting article from the point of view of this study. It reads as follows:
Member Records.—In clause 6 of rule VII—
'(4) add at the end the following new paragraph: (…) (b) Records created, generated, or received by the congressional office of a Member, Delegate, or the Resident Commissioner in the performance of official duties are exclusively the personal property of the individual Member, Delegate, or the Resident Commissioner and such Member, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner has control over such records'
According to this legislation all records produced by a Member of a Congress, which are supposed be a publicly accessible, suddenly become private property of their owner (a congressman or any official mentioned in the fragment above) who has the right to refuse to reveal them. This solution creates a new sort of problem, because typically this kind of information is publically accessible for any interested party. Now, it will become more difficult for the press and civil society to monitor the behaviour of their representatives, or to track their meetings, schedules or even statements on the record.
As much as privacy concerns are taken into account, elected officials become public persons once they assume the office. People who wield extensive power carry a great burden of responsibility towards the people who elected them and should be held responsible for their actions. This legislation makes it more difficult to track down and monitor activities of the lawmakers. And it might become a source of the new found power for America’s biggest corporations, as people with much power but little accountability are prone to corruption and favouritism.
This piece of legislation allows every Congressman or Congresswoman to shield themselves behind privacy laws, while inquired about their actions taken while in the office. It can be expected that this type of behaviour becomes an acceptable norm among 'people in power'. Holding them accountable in front of the general populous will become much more difficult.
We can add to it some other dubious behaviour of the representatives of the people, like in case of Sen. Jeff Flake who proposed a bill SJ Res 34 -115. Despite enormous uproar, it became law. This joint legislation nullifies net neutrality rule and ceases any form of privacy protection of the end user allowing ISPs (Internet Service Providers i.e. Time Warner or Verizon) to sell the browsing data of their clients as well as to prioritise internet traffic in the network as they please. This puts at risk American citizens as it creates serious concern over the emergence of new, dubious practises among Internet providers, which allow ISPs to compete with Google or Facebook who are not bound by such rules and have been able to trade browsing data of their user. Again, the profit of a few companies outweighs the needs of citizens. It is highly unlikely that the bill will be amended before Congress elections of 2018, if at all.
When thinking of the numerous scandals that involve many members of the Congress and some private companies, especially multinationals or Wall Street enterprises, we can be sure that many more secret deals are bound to be made. Those deals will further erode American democracy and give birth to a greater amount of conspiracy theories. However, the most unfortunate part is obvious; the mistrust between the people and their representatives will become even bigger and more difficult to heal.
Jakub, born in Warsaw, is European at heart and in the soul. Jacob is dedicated to European cause, an active member of JEF in the ”heart of Europe” Maastricht for few years. A graduate of Political Science at Warsaw University, and European Law at Maastricht University (currently continuing with Master degree). Despite his dedication to Europe, Jacob has affair with the USA and is very passionate about transatlantic relationships. He is a member of the EU Foreign Policy Research Group responsible for covering the USA.
Choma, R. (2015). One Member of Congress = 18 American Households: Lawmakers’ Personal Finances Far From Average. [online] Available at: http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2015/01/one-member-of-congress-18-american-households-lawmakers-personal-finances-far-from-average/ Accessed: 8 Apr. 2017.
The Congress, (2017). H.Res.5 - Adopting rules for the One Hundred Fifteenth Congress. [online] Available at: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-resolution/5 Accessed: 8 Apr. 2017.
Freedom House, (2017). Freedom of the Press 2016. [online] Available at: https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/freedom-press-2016?gclid=Cj0KEQjwzpfHBRC1iIaL78Ol-eIBEiQAdZPVKikdDxB3xtC8sQ7VSAE8br3sEAgwqrrzJ-LrLvxVldIaAuYi8P8HAQ Accessed: 8 Apr. 2017.
Gilens, M. and Page, B.I. (2014). Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. [online] Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/article/testing-theories-of-american-politics-elites-interest-groups-and-average-citizens/62327F513959D0A304D4893B382B992B Accessed: 8 Apr. 2017.
PayScale, (2017). CEO Pay: How Much Do CEOs Make Compared to Their Employees? [online] Available at: http://www.payscale.com/data-packages/ceo-pay Accessed: 8 Apr. 2017.
Reich, R. (2017). Four or five grounds for impeaching Trump. [online] Available at: http://www.newsweek.com/robert-reich-four-or-five-grounds-impeaching-trump-579968 Accessed: 8 Apr. 2017.
Smith, D. (2016). Trump's billionaire cabinet could be the wealthiest administration ever. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/02/trumps-rich-pickings-president-elects-team-could-be-wealthiest-ever Accessed: 8 Apr. 2017.
University of Pittsburgh, (2014). The European-American employment gap, wage inequality, earnings mobility and skill: A study for France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. Final report. [online] Available at: http://aei.pitt.edu/34777/ Accessed: 8 Apr. 2017.