The world seems to be dividing into two camps. In the first camp, we value freedom, and we know that it can only survive with a healthy dose of personal responsibility. We accept responsibility for our actions, including our mistakes. Those in the second camp value safety, even when it comes at the expense of freedom. They also tend to look for ways to escape accountability. Some vague notion of “society” is somehow responsible for every mistake you make. Individuals who act wrongly are victims of this ineffable society.
Most Oklahomans are in the first camp. And, logically, we tend to vote for leaders who reflect these values. We like it when adults take responsibility for their actions, even if they turned out poorly.
Political scientists theorize that legislators prefer to delegate responsibility to unaccountable administrative agencies. The theory goes that legislators are constantly trying to keep everyone happy. They create administrative agencies with vague missions and send them forth into the state to do good things. They bask in the goodwill created by forming these agencies. But when the agencies act in ways that are unpopular, legislators can plausibly claim they never intended for the agency to do such a thing.
Take for instance a bill that would delegate the legislature’s authority to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority (HCA) to come up with a fully bureaucratically-managed HMO-style Medicaid administration system. If the legislature laid out a plan in detail and left only the day to day administration the HCA, that would be legislative responsibility in action. But when the bill, as initially passed by the House, exhorts the HCA to create a good system, free of any direction, how can they be held accountable if the HCA’s system is a failure? Well, they can be accountable for passing the buck, but the ultimate failure is on the HCA. And frequently legislators get away with blaming the agency.
But this sort of ploy wouldn’t work well in Oklahoma. We value responsibility and accountability. Voters wouldn’t let politicians get away with hiding behind the agencies they themselves created. No, to the extent this kind of thing happens in Oklahoma, it is an accident of institutional design.
The laudable goals behind term limits have had some unintended consequences. Since legislators can serve no more than 12 years, it leaves a vacuum of institutional memory. Lobbyists and legislative liaisons (lobbyists funded by taxpayers, who represent agencies funded by taxpayers, often to the detriment of taxpayers) are only too happy to step into that role. There are no term limits for lobbyists. When agency bureaucrats have decades of seniority over even long-tenured legislators, it’s easy to understand why those members might defer to the advice of their seniors.
With such a short turnover, it’s easy to understand how members could forget that the American Framers intended state legislatures to be the most powerful governmental bodies in the country. They answer directly to the people; this accountability makes them the most trustworthy. When they bury that power in unaccountable agencies, they betray the public trust.
So what’s the cure? Abolish term limits? Abolish lobbyists? Put term limits on civil servants? All ideas worth exploring. But the solution to this particular problem is much simpler. All we have to do is remind our elected representatives that we believe in accountability and responsibility, and that Legislative Primacy is part and parcel of those values.
Our system of checks and balances is primarily composed of accountability. And the focus of that accountability has always been legislators. We as voters need to remind our representatives that we respect those who take responsibility. One of the best ways for legislators to earn our votes in their next election is to give clear direction to agencies. Put the power and the accountability right back where it belongs: on elected officials.
Let other states keep their mealy-mouthed politicians, who hide behind the skirts of agencies, boards, and bureaucrats. Let them have their vaguely worded aspirations that masquerade as laws. There will always be a proper place for agencies. But their job should be to keep up with the day-to-day grind of pursuing the mission the legislature sets for them. They shouldn’t have policymaking authority. They should execute the narrowly defined tasks assigned to them in law.
In Oklahoma, we elect bold leaders worthy of the public trust. We elect those willing to put their reputation on the line. We re-elect statesmen; men and women who take initiative, seek good policy and zealously pursue it, and rally others to their cause. We elect lawmakers, not goal setters.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.