Power is a highly addictive, dangerous substance over which humans have been fighting since the dawn of civilization. Those who crave it most and fight for it hardest are often the least fit to hold power. It breaks my heart to realize this likely won’t change anytime soon.
Many are aware of Lord Acton’s famous quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But few have read the sentence that followed: “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”
After many years in the political arena brawling with giant egos and powerful opinions, I realized that the only corruption I could do anything about was my own. Corruption is like cockroaches moving freely in the darkness, but when the lights come on, it scurries to find a dark hiding place.
My quality of life has steadily improved since my political withdrawal several years ago, and a complete recovery seems within reach. And as the final days of the first regular state legislative session since my departure loom, I have managed to avoid a relapse.
Yet the American political process continues to intrigue me, particularly the foresight of its founders in recognizing that the best way to minimize the peril posed by human hunger to exercise control over others is to prevent the accumulation of power.
By assigning different responsibilities and powers to a judicial, executive, and legislative branch, the founders designed a political system that functioned best when each separate branch recognized that their ability to meet their assigned responsibilities was dependent upon the power of the other two. The interaction of the branches of government functions much like a perpetual paper-rock-scissors game. Alabama’s state government has the same general design.
A career in law enforcement followed by two decades as a state representative forced me to become intimately aware of these internal power struggles. It’s difficult to maintain the tenuous balance necessary to have a government with just enough power to maintain order while minimizing intrusions upon the personal freedom of its citizens.
The judicial branch is controlled by lawyers with the ability to seal records and limit access to information, and the executive branch is comprised of hierarchical bureaucracies with power flowing from the top-down. Secrecy is much easier to maintain within these two branches than the legislative branch, which is designed to be more representative with power derived from the bottom up. Although it is more openly political, controversial, and easier to criticize than the other branches, it is also better equipped to foster citizen participation, promote transparency, and even find collaborative solutions to difficult problems.
While the powers granted to Alabama’s legislative branch are broad, the ability to wield it is limited by its dispersion among 140 members, divided into two separate bodies, and elected from individual districts throughout the state. Secrets are hard to keep in the halls of the statehouse, and corruption needs secrecy.
While the Alabama Legislature has immense power to tax, appropriate funding, and pass legislation affecting almost every aspect of our lives, it has been much more reluctant to expand its power than most people realize, often to their own detriment. A prime example is the lack of subpoena power and inability to compel testimony in a public hearing.
I discovered this deficiency nearly a decade ago when Alabama underwent a constitutional crisis created by a perfect storm of corruption, arrogance, and incompetence at the highest levels of state government. Desperately struggling to comprehend the whole truth and get it in the open, I was disappointed that most of my colleagues just wanted it all to go away. And it did, at least for the time being, but there wasn’t much interest in preventing it from happening again.
The serious flaws in our system of checks and balances were easily ignored and remain today. The ability to have legislative hearings and compel testimony under certain circumstances could provide important opportunities to shed light on the cockroaches. Though we don’t see them, it doesn’t mean they are not there.
The legislature can never be serious about transparency, accountability, and oversight until they can subpoena witnesses and require testimony under oath at a public hearing. I doubt it would be needed that often, but having the option available would play an important role in helping gather the accurate information needed to make sound budgetary and policy decisions.
Mike Ball served 25 years as an Alabama State Trooper and Agent of the Alabama Bureau of Investigation until his election to the Alabama House of Representatives in 2002. He did not run for re-election last year in order to devote more time to telling stories, singing songs, and writing.
He recently published his memoir “Picking, Politicking, and Pontificating (How an Ex-Cop Legalized Cannabis While Fighting Corruption”
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.
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