Column: The quality of accountability
WASHINGTON — In the narrative of every political scandal comes the accountability moment. New facts slow to a trickle, and the next, insistent demand becomes: Who is being held accountable? This is often a dumb question, asked for lack of a more fruitful topic and fueled by partisans more interested in point-scoring than problem-fixing.
The better question is: What is the goal of accountability? A showy, timed-for-the-evening-news firing to demonstrate action and quiet the baying hounds? Or a change in personnel that will improve the mess at hand or send a cautionary message to deter future messes?
Consider the recent mess-o-rama. The botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act. The Senate report that deemed the attack in Benghazi preventable, and raised questions about accountability, or lack thereof. The mounting problems of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Together, they illustrate that our politics suffers from too little real accountability and too much faux-countability. The latter phenomenon has two variations. There is non-accountable accountability, in which the politician piously asserts that the buck stops with him or her but does nothing, post-proclamation, with said buck. And there is its obverse, over-accountability, in which political foes attempt to tar officials with responsibility for actions far beneath their purview.
As the debacle with the health care website was unfolding, I bristled at calls for public beheading. Firing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, or some lesser-known bureaucrat, wasn’t going to make the website load any faster. Such a precipitous, showy change would probably have worsened the disaster.
But now, with the immediate crisis under control, would seem like a good time for accountability. “Hold me accountable for the debacle,” Sebelius declared in October. “I’m responsible.” Nice sentiment. But this is non-accountable accountability, an assertion devoid of content. Accountability is meaningless without consequences attached.
Of course, the ultimate responsibility rests with President Obama himself, who failed to adequately oversee implementation. But the conundrum of presidential accountability is that the chief executive can’t fire himself.
Benghazi offers an example of both lack of accountability and faux-countability. As Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins pointed out in comments filed with the Senate intelligence committee report, the attack was preventable, yet no one has been disciplined for failing to prevent it. Collins singled out Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, who testified that the threat environment in Benghazi was “flashing red” yet failed to ensure that a facility he approved there had adequate security.
If the State Department were a corporation, heads would have rolled.
But politics being politics, most Republicans engaged in a bid for over-accountability, focusing on — wonder why — Hillary Clinton. “She was responsible for ensuring the safety of all Americans serving in our diplomatic facilities,” six Republican members of the Senate intelligence committee wrote in the report. “Her failure to do so clearly made a difference in the lives of the four murdered Americans and their families.” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham went further. “Under her leadership, the consulate became a death trap,” he told CNN.
Yet the report, like previous investigations, offered no evidence that Clinton was aware of security concerns in Libya. Contrast the preparation for Obamacare, which was, or should have been, at the center of Sebelius’ concerns, with the issue of embassy security. That is an important, certainly, and tragically neglected topic, yet not one fair to tag Clinton with, given the array of issues on the secretarial plate.
Which brings us to Christie. The New Jersey governor acted quickly, at least once the incriminating emails were released, to dump the officials involved. He gets accountability points for that, even if it is simultaneously true that the dumping was to his political advantage. “I take this action today because it’s my job,” Christie said in announcing that he was firing his deputy chief of staff and cutting ties with his campaign manager. “I am responsible for what happened.”
Good for Christie. Where the governor loses a few points is in what he takes responsibility for. In Christie’s marathon news conference, he came off as more outraged at having been betrayed by his aides lying to him than by their thuggish conduct. It’s fair to wonder: Is he accountable for establishing an atmosphere in which underlings viewed such conduct as acceptable?
It’s hard to think of the last major public official to take ownership of a failure and resign. Proclaiming accountability, or deploying it as political weapon, is simple enough. Practicing it, especially on yourself, is a lot harder and, not surprisingly, a lot more rare.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.