It is no accident that corruption tends to come with power. Many of us are familiar with Lord Acton’s famous statement, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Power that corrupts is not necessarily the exercise of authority but the exercise of unaccountable authority. J.R.R. Tolkien gave us a contemporary illustration of this in The Lord of the Rings. At the center of the story was the ring of power, and one of the effects of wearing this ring was invisibility. With the ring of power, presence could be concealed and action would go without accountability.
We know as citizens of this great country that we need effective government. Our national security must be defended abroad and the public welfare advanced at home. This requires the exercise of authority, and our system of government intentionally makes this authority accountable to the public. The Founding Fathers had a keen understanding of human nature. They knew that personal ambition would drive the actions of public officials. Their answer was not to limit public offices to angels, for no one would qualify, but to create separate branches of government so that “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” as James Madison wrote in Federalist 51. Likewise, in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, Thomas Jefferson went further and said, “...in questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.”
Our separate branches of government thus are a foundational part of encouraging accountable, transparent government. But a framework of government based on checks and balances was not enough for the Founders. More important than the structure itself was the watchful engagement of citizens in public affairs. Different branches of government that checked each other could all drift away from the public interest if not held accountable to the people they represented.
This accountability fundamentally begins at the ballot box and extends to the many other civic duties we have as American citizens. During the interim of last Legislature, I had the honor of serving as Chair of the Senate’s Committee on Election Security. From the Rio Grande Valley to East Texas to the Metroplex, we have had troubling allegations or incidents of voter fraud. Our answer was legislation to provide a paper audit trail of electronic voting, testing to ensure the proper function of voting systems, and stiffer penalties to more harshly punish voter fraud. This legislation passed the Senate but did not get through the House. These measures deserve continued support in the next Legislature.
Civic duty extends beyond the ballot box. Our government does not work as it should without active and engaged citizen participation. Through the Texas Ethics Commission, citizens can know who is giving to public officials and who is lobbying those officials. Through the sunset review process, the Legislature engages in a regular assessment of state agencies, their performance, and continued relevance. Reliable news sources provide regular updates on what is happening in local, state, and national government. Through open meeting requirements, the public has a right to be informed about and participate in public policy discussions. Through the legislative process, bills have to be introduced in written form for all to see, committees have to be held that all can attend, and votes have to be taken that all can record.
Take advantage of these things and more to make your government better and your country more free.