Holding the Government Accountable

A Right to “Know” or a Right to “No”: A War for Information

The Levin Center's director, Jocelyn Benson, moderated a panel on the current system of information access between the legislative and executive branches of government. She is pictured next to Professor Josh Chafetz and former House general counsel Kerry Kircher.

Checks and balances are fundamental components of our democracy. For instance, Congress has been given certain powers to keep the executive branch accountable for its operations.

Thanks to The Levin Center and The Constitution Project, many lawyers, professors, historians, and government officials convened yesterday for a two-panel event, called “A Right to ‘Know’ or a Right to ‘No’?” to discuss Congressional oversight of the executive branch. The general argument remains consistent: many Members of Congress and their lawyers want unrestricted access to executive-branch information regarding intra-agency or inter-agency concerns, while executive government officials argue that certain communications should remain confidential, such as those that fall under the category of deliberative process or executive privilege.

The back-and-forth discussion between the panelists resulted in a lively debate that highlighted the obvious tension over this issue. With the presidential election less than two weeks away, this argument highlighted Congress’s upcoming battle for executive-branch information. Regardless of who is elected, the public can expect the White House to resist these disclosure demands.

The executive branch’s past efforts to stymie Congressional oversight by denying access to information prompted the Project On Government Oversight to create its Congressional Oversight Initiative. Through this program, POGO offers trainings, mentors, and online resources that help Congressional staffers in their oversight efforts. POGO aims to support Members of Congress who investigate proceedings within the executive branch and who execute one of the checks and balances established in our Constitution. The panel this week exemplified the tension between Congress’s intention to take that responsibility seriously and to uphold a pillar of our democracy by tirelessly seeking the truth and working towards a more effective government and the Executive Branch's responsibility to balance the public interest against national security.