California shows that ‘independent commissions’ are an illusion

 

Some in Utah, including interest groups, the media, and a few elected officials (usually former elected officials) favor creating “nonpartisan,” “independent” commissions to oversee important political processes like congressional redistricting and legislative ethics investigations.

The influence of money and partisan interests does not magically disappear simply because we create “independent” commissions.

“Independent” commissions produce better outcomes, we are led to believe, because they make their decisions free of the influence of wealthy special interests and/or political partisanship.

Yet, as a recent Pro Publica (a nonprofit news organization) investigative report into California’s new “nonpartisan” redistricting commission shows, this promise of freedom from partisan or special interest influence is an illusion. 

Having a “nonpartisan” redistricting commission did not end the influence of money and political parties in the redistricting process in California. Rather, the commission forced those with money and political power to be more secretive about how they were influencing the process.

It is in fact arguable that the secrecy necessitated by the “nonpartisan” commission actually increased the influence of both money and political parties in the process. Whereas before their activities were seen for what they were because they occurred in the open, in the current process the influence of money and political parties went undetected, and were in some ways even protected by the “independence” of the redistricting process.

California’s experience should be instructive for Utah. The influence of money and partisan interests does not magically disappear simply because we create “independent” commissions. Unfortunately, those influences will always be there.

Utah’s primary policy decision is either: (1) to establish policies which naively assume that these influences can be eliminated, thereby encouraging them to act secretly under the guise of “independence”; or (2) to enact policies that encourage transparency and accountability by requiring the influences of money and partisanship to act in the open. At least with the latter, we’ll know what’s going on rather than being duped as Californians were.

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