Checks and balances. Separation of powers. Rule of law. Accountability.
These are terms that are thrown around a lot in D.C. But what does upholding these fundamental tenets of our system of government look like in practice? Last year, Democracy Fund embarked on an effort to tackle this difficult question, investing $6 million over the course of two years.
Through our special project on Government Accountability, Transparency, and Oversight we aim to defend and strengthen the democratic norms that underpin our system of government. Our democracy is strongest when each branch of government serves as a check on the other to ensure there is a balance of power that allows no single branch to dominate the others.
Governmental watchdogs and other institutions of civic life play a critical role in monitoring our government and holding it accountable to the Constitution, the law, and the people. They are engaged in education, advocacy, litigation, research, and other actions that reveal abuses and improve Congress’ ability to conduct oversight. Ultimately their work should lead to increased public demand for action, and more effective checks and balances across the three branches of government.
This special project is an expansion of the critical work we are already doing to improve our institutions. The Governance Program at Democracy Fund has worked for years to strengthen Congress’ capacity to conduct constructive oversight of the executive branch—the type of oversight that helps government better serve the American people. But the current political environment poses new threats to the rule of law and to the system of checks and balances. The question is: Can we protect the rule of law through a constructive approach that brings people together to support the foundation of our system of government? In this partisan moment, can we find bipartisan approaches to protecting democratic norms and holding the government accountable to the American people?
We believe the answer to these questions is “yes.”
We must do all we can to ensure that the structural safeguards of checks and balances established by our Constitution—and the mechanisms that influence and support those safeguards—will work as intended. This holds true regardless of the party that controls the White House, or the two chambers of Congress.
With that in mind, Democracy Fund is investing in a few different areas through this special project. We are working to strengthen the capacity of Congress to engage in effective oversight through watchdogs like the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). Executive branch oversight is a core function of Congress, but congressional capacity to conduct effective oversight has suffered from the same institutional weaknesses—hyper-partisanship, lack of capacity—that have imperiled Congress’ ability to legislate effectively. POGO, along with the Levin Center and the Lugar Center, train congressional staff on both sides of the aisle about how to do effective, bipartisan oversight. That could include working with federal whistleblowers, who are a critical source of information about government wrongdoing. Federal employees who witness waste, fraud, abuse, or who are ordered to engage in actions they believe to be unlawful—and refuse to go along—are a key backstop to ensure accountability. They deserve strong legal protections and representation, which is why we have invested in organizations like the Government Accountability Project (GAP).
Other key elements of accountable government are transparency, and strong ethics rules. We are working to enhance the transparency of government actions and decision-making through our investments in groups like Open the Government and the National Security Archive, and to provide independent fact-checking of government statements on complicated issues through groups like the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. We are likewise supporting organizations like Issue One, who identify and enforce ethics violations, conflicts of interest, and other forms of corruption to ensure government decisions are made for the benefit of the American people—not to enrich a few.
The current climate has shown that we cannot take for granted the rule of law. To strengthen our constitutional system of checks and balances, we are supporting organizations who are working to strengthen our democratic system and prepare for and respond to potential crises, such as the R Street Institute and the Protect Democracy Project.
The fundamental goal of our special project is to ensure that checks and balances, separation of powers, rule of law, and accountability aren’t just Washington buzzwords, but rather, that they remain the principles that form the foundation of our democracy. And if nothing else, we should all be able to agree on that.
Grantees under the Special Project on Government Accountability, Transparency, and Oversight Include the Following:
- Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System — Project DATA
- Brookings Institution — Lawfare
- Center for Responsive Politics
- Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget
- German Marshal Fund — Alliance for Securing Democracy
- Government Accountability Project
- Issue One
- National Security Archive Fund
- Open the Government
- Partnership for Public Service
- Protect Democracy Project
- R Street Institute
- The Constitution Project at POGO
- The Lugar Center
- The Project on Government Oversight
- Wayne State University — Levin Center
- William J. Brennan Center for Justice