Opinion: Biden must hold government accountable — starting with his own*
President Donald Trump subjected the country to a four-year-long demonstration of the fragility of its democratic norms. President Biden has vowed, in contrast, to restore the ideals of good governance. Now he must do more than honor them. He must also, as much as possible, entrench them.
The Accountability 2021 project convened individuals and organizations throughout civil society ahead of the 2020 election to craft an agenda that would close chasms in transparency, ethics and oversight made obvious by the previous White House. Mr. Biden’s victory augured the progress that the coalition hoped for, but almost eight months into his tenure, essential changes remain unmade. These reforms aim to ensure that no public servant is beyond the rule of law. They would clamp down on self-dealing and pay-to-play influence, and they would go after the institutionalized secrecy that enables the illegal exercise of executive authority. Unspoken or unwritten prohibitions on ill conduct — norms that were universally accepted until Mr. Trump came along — should be codified. Disclosure should be required so that the rules can’t be violated without consequences — or without voters finding out.
The need for change was brought home by a commander in chief who offered quid pro quo protections to a foreign leader, stocked his Cabinet and team of advisers with walking conflicts of interest, separated families at the border without even bothering to record where it sent children yanked away from their parents and much more. Yet norms had eroded even before the depredations of the past term. The project focuses, for instance, on opinions by the Office of Legal Counsel within the Justice Department that have over multiple administrations formed the basis for everything from barring staff from testifying before Congress to torturing detainees, yet most of which are kept secret. These call out for more transparency. Other areas ripe for attention include improving the process that undergirds the Freedom of Information Act, empowering a too-sparse roster of inspectors general and safeguarding whistleblowers.
Justified relief at the election of a president whom voters can more easily trust to look out for the nation’s interests rather than his own should not give way to complacency. Mr. Biden has had a crisis-packed start to his tenure, so it’s not surprising that these reforms have not been the administration’s top priority; and in its early days, it did issue a laudable executive order on ethics for federal employees. Yet there’s far more to be done, some of it through executive action and some of it through legislation such as the Protecting Our Democracy Act, which Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) may reintroduce shortly and which Mr. Biden ought to strongly support.
The sooner the better. The White House can best demonstrate its belief in the importance of raised expectations — to the people and to the rest of the world — by applying them to itself.
*This Washington Post editorial board opinion originally appeared here.