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July 3, 2013
Editorial: A declaration of accountable government

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(July 3 -- By the Editorial Board)

A declaration of accountable government

On this day, 237 years ago, the 13 American colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence that ended their colonial status under Great Britain.

Among the "repeated injuries and usurpations" the signers listed against the British government, which they saw as "a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism," was deliberate government secrecy and lack of citizen access to government proceedings and records.

The king, they wrote, "has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures."

So when Americans crafted a new government, the Constitution required their government to maintain public records that could be examined.

The Senate and the House "shall keep a journal of its proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such parts as may in their judgment require secrecy."

If the president vetoes a bill, he must write up his objections and the Congress "shall enter the objections at large on their journal." The president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the Union" - a communication of the president to the people of the United States.

And the American people must be able to follow the money: "a regular statement and account of the receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time."

In the Declaration of Independence, Americans also objected to faraway trials - which made access to witnesses and records difficult - and trials by a judge without a jury of peers. They fixed that in the Constitution by requiring that criminal trials "shall be by jury" and such trials "shall be held in the State where said crimes shall have been committed."

The Constitution also made it clear that public accountability applies to the states. States have a duty to respect the "public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state." And Congress may make laws to specify the manner in which states have to make those acts, records and proceedings public.

But openness cannot be taken for granted. We have had major lapses in our history - including the House of Representatives preventing anti-slavery petitions from being discussed, referred or recorded in the years leading up to the Civil War and government attempts to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War in 1971.

Today we are embroiled in a discussion over openness vs. national security in the aftermath of Edward Snowden's leaking of documents about government surveillance of phone and Internet communications.

The words of the 1997 Congressional Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy remain true today: "Excessive secrecy has significant consequences for the national interest when, as a result, policymakers are not fully informed, government is not held accountable for its actions, and the public cannot engage in informed debate."

As we reread the Declaration of Independence, it is worth remembering that our forebears thought that citizens knowing what their government is up to was an essential element in a democratic republic.

We should err on the side of openness, with secrecy a rare exception that can be justified only in the most extraordinary of circumstances.

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