America's leaders are destroying our system of checks and balances

Tuesday , February 20, 2018 - 4:00 AM2 comments

JEFF STEAGALL, special to the Standard-Examiner

The FBI is incompetent and corrupt; it investigates political candidates to support the party in power. The press consists of liars who push personal political agendas with fake news.

These are just two examples of solid institutions that unfairly have been under attack by the leaders of the past several administrations.

Generally, these accusations against key democratic institutions are not backed by truth. The attacks are bad, but more seriously, too many voters no longer attempt to learn the truth, opting instead to accept accusations as proof, as long as they come from those who share their political views.

Are there problems with America’s institutions? No doubt they could all do better. Are there occasional instances of abuse by public employees to further partisan politics or personal agendas? Of course. We cannot expect perfection from institutions designed and staffed by imperfect human beings.

Yet that does not explain the relatively sudden, dramatic drop in Americans’ perceptions of their key institutions. And that new perception is truly dangerous to America’s future.

More than any other nation in the world, the United States is founded upon strong institutions with a solid system of checks and balances to ensure they remain fair, truth-seeking and transparent. That history began with the Constitution and continued as the fledgling nation added institutions to meet its political, legislative, judicial, social and economic needs.

These institutions have worked remarkably well over time and are the envy of citizens around the world. As an example, President Richard Nixon’s illegal activities resulted in severe consequences. Institutions prevailed. Corruption failed.

One observation about American leadership is that the individual occupying the Oval Office isn’t as important to the administration of the government as the president of most other countries. That certainly doesn’t mean the president isn’t important or cannot have a major influence on the world. The American president is still the world’s most powerful individual.

Instead, the viewpoint reflects the ability of American institutions to ensure the stability of social and economic policies over time. The three branches of government act as checks and balances against each other’s powers. An independent press (remember Woodward, Bernstein and the Washington Post?) act as an additional check, exposing improper activities within U.S. institutions or by American leaders. The judicial system and public sentiment help remove cancers before they become widespread.

Unfortunately, a disturbing trend has emerged of partisan leaders attempting to avoid the system of checks and balances for their own purposes.

Although other presidents used executive orders, President Barack Obama employed them on a scale that dwarfed others. Through that mechanism, he enacted rules without consulting Congress, undermining the critical institution of checks and balances.

Candidate Donald Trump took a different, yet also damaging, approach. He ridiculed the press, confining them to pens and making derogatory comments about them at his rallies. That savvy campaign strategy of destroying the reputation of the press as fair and fact-based set the stage for him to target other institutions, both during the campaign and after his inauguration.

Trump alleged the FBI spied on his campaign at the urging of the Obama administration. Normally, the press would play an important role in determining whether the allegations had merit. However, after months of ridicule, the president’s supporters are unlikely to trust anything the press reports contradictory to the president’s story. The allegation is all; truth matters little.

Recently, congressional Republicans took another step to damage checks and balances. Using their majority, they orchestrated the release of a memorandum that provided their partisan-biased view of FBI misconduct. Disturbingly, they simultaneously blocked the Democrats’ ability to provide additional facts or alternative interpretations. Releasing one party’s perspective while prohibiting release of a dissent serves the public poorly.

Americans of every political persuasion ought to be livid at the behavior of our federal leadership. The nation’s leaders are making checks and balances, a key aspect of America’s identity and success, irrelevant. Along the way, they are destroying confidence in our important institutions.

Voters should push back hard. They should demand documented truth and transparency before leaders condemn the institutions that have been instrumental to America’s strength. To do otherwise is to ensure the demise of this country.

We are fortunate in Utah to have little of this destructive behavior. Our government, educational, business and nonprofit entities work together to benefit all. We understand that being strong means strengthening each other. WSU’s Goddard School of Business & Economics reinforces this perspective in future leaders, because every student learns ethical behavior and leadership, which is key to the long-term health and benefit of all institutions.

Dr. Jeff Steagall is the dean of Weber State University’s John B. Goddard School of Business & Economics and a professor of economics. Twitter: @SteagallJeff.

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