Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Open Government, Then And Now


State hearings on legislative bills derive from town hall meetings, which predate state and federal constitutions. The Puritans established town meetings at the same time they established various New England colonies.

The animating spirit that informs both the town meeting and state hearings on legislative matters is much the same: Governors and legislators in a Republic derive their authority to govern from the people. There is no place in a Democracy or a Republic for authoritarian rule. Indeed, there is no place for authoritarian rule in a state in which men are ruled by laws rather than other men: Even under a monarchical form of government; such was the guiding principle of the founders of the American Republic.

When John Otis, the Advocate General of the Massachusetts colony, was visited by agents of the King who hoped to secure his aid in permitting customs officials to search Boston businesses with a general warrant, he resigned his post immediately and signed on as attorney for the putative “colonial smugglers.”

The colonists in Boston took to smuggling after the crown had abolished Land Banks in order, patriots like Samuel Adams correctly thought, to cripple competitive colonial commerce. Land banks issued currency backed by property holdings rather than gold or silver, and commercial credit under such a system rested upon property as security for loans. When the crown closed the Land Banks, creditors demanded payment in gold or silver and recalled their loans. Samuel Adams, the father of the American Revolution and the fledgling nation’s earliest and most persistent apostle of liberty, correctly viewed the credit crunch inspired by the crown as a frontal attack on colonial commerce. Britain wanted to destroy its commercial competitors, and it could do this only by destroying the liberty of everyone in the colonies. The crown also wanted to generate revenue to support a growing governmental bureaucracy in newly acquired colonies such as India – and to this end piled new taxes on top of a crown inspired credit crunch, both of which quickly led to massive foreclosures.

Under English law, Otis knew, search warrants had to specify specific locations and contain sworn complaints that goods were being smuggled. At an open hearing in a  public court, he argued that the illegal general warrants, or “writs of assistance” as they were called, conferred upon agents of the King “a power that places the liberty of every man in the hands of every petty officer. If this commission be legal, a tyrant, in a legal matter, also may control, imprison or murder anyone within the realm.” It was during this defense that Otis first used the expression “taxation without representation.”

Such was the power of public hearings and open judicial proceedings in colonial times that Otis’ four hour defense of the rights of colonists under British law made him an instant celebrity. Sitting among the spectators was a 23 year-old John Adams, who later wrote, “Every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take up arms against writs of assistance.”

Eventually, Otis was brought into contact with John Adams’ second cousin, Samuel Adams, the maestro of the town meeting and a journalist of rare honor. Together they breathed on the live embers of a revolution.   

There are practical reasons to justify open public meetings. No single legislator or body of legislators can be expected to know everything concerning the real world consequences of legislative measures, and public hearings considerably expand the field of knowledge upon which reasoned legislation depends. A public hearing is exactly what the term implies: A body of legislators has written a bill and it wishes to know before passing the legislation the certain, practical consequences of the measure; so it holds a public hearing to hear from those directly affected by the bill what the practical consequences of the legislation is likely to be be. Having heard from the people, legislators may then adjust their bills to accommodate information that certainly would not be available to them in the absence of a hearing.

In Connecticut’s new, progressive, one party state, public officials – from Governor Dannel Malloy to an arrogant Democratic Party monopoly in the General Assembly – consider open hearings as inconvenient impediments, much in the manner of the crown during New England’s colonial era. But, sadly, here in the state that once offered to the world the first written constitution, always considered a break on overweening political power, there is no Otis or Samuel Adams among us to warn of the predictable and known dangers inherent in authoritarian rule. The very purpose of public hearings – to inform legislators and check political presumption – is shrouded in the mist of revered memory.

Everywhere in Connecticut’s resurgent, progressive, activist government one sees the deadening hand of authoritarian party rule crushing public hearings, smuggling self-serving legislative “rats” into omnibus bills that legislators have not been given time to digest or debate in open hearings, imposing burdensome new taxes during the worst recession since the Great Depression, driving job producing businesses from the state, using tax money to support crony capitalists, shelving bills that have wide popular support, shaping behind the veil the future of Connecticut with a dispatch that King George III in all his glory and power could not help but admire.

And among us, not a single cry from the rooftops – and no Otis or Adams in sight on the horizon.
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