The last few years have done nothing that I can see to restore people's faith in government. Instead, if anything, people have become more and more doubtful about the ability of government to function at even the most basic levels.
The election was a start - it seems to have restored people's faith that the process still works, that people eventually see through even the most carefully constructed political cover, and that they are able to speak clearly and forcefully to politicians through the ballot box. And this is despite concerted attempts to thwart such political will through gerrymandering and other such techniques.
But it is only a start.
The next step is to see if government will respond to the message and function better, or whether there will just be more of the same. My hope is that the next two years can begin to show that government can improve. That people will come to see that government can make a positive difference, that it can, when it is devoted to the cause and run well by those in charge, makes us all better off. There are limits, of course, to what the government can do, but those limits are a long way from what we have seen lately.
This also helps me think through something else. I've been wondering how aggressively Democrats should investigate the past six years and what purpose it would serve. If it's simply to score political points, to punish those on the other side of the aisle as much as possible, I don't think the public will accept an aggressive look into how we ended up where we are today. If it appears as partisan bickering to the general public, just more of the same, it won't be useful.
But faith needs to be restored in government and that cannot happen unless people are convinced that government can police itself, that one branch of government has effective oversight - the appropriate checks and balances - over other branches. That will require effective and active oversight, and oversight requires investigation. The investigation should not be vindictive nor have preconceived ideas about what it will find, that will serve little purpose in the long-run. The point needs to be to restore faith in government by taking a fair, comprehensive look back to identify problems, and then taking the steps needed to make sure that it cannot happen so easily again.
I don't mean that those who broke the law should face no consequences, not at all, only that the first goal needs to be to reestablish a conversation with the public that serves to rebuild what has been lost.
I don't mean, either, that somehow this congress will magically end the debate over the proper role of government, how much is too much, how much is too little, what government should and shouldn't be involved in, etc. That debate is hundreds and hundreds of years old and one session of congress won't end it.
But I do hope that with the combination of smart policy and transparent, effective internal oversight, the tide can be turned from the falling faith in government we have seen lately, to the hope and expectation that government can play a useful role in solving difficult societal problems.
Update: From the New York Times editorial page, this is "Stanley Brand, a former general counsel to the House of Representatives under Speaker Tip O’Neill":
Let the Investigations Begin, by Stanley Brand, Commentary, NY Times: The Democrats’ victory has stoked the fire beneath an already brewing debate within the party regarding the need for investigations of the executive branch during the Bush administration’s two remaining years. Some Democratic members of Congress are reluctant to pursue investigations into war profiteering, detainee interrogation or other controversial issues, fearing that such scrutiny of the administration will make Democrats appear petty and partisan and cost them electoral support in 2008.
A vigorous examination of the administration’s conduct, however, is not only the appropriate action as a matter of constitutional prerogative, it is the politically necessary response to voters’ overwhelming rejection of the current Congress’s failure to assert itself in this area.
Nothing is better established in constitutional history and jurisprudence than Congress’s power to investigate the executive. Centuries of precedents in Parliament, colonial legislatures and United States law endorse it. ...
Indeed, the very first example of congressional oversight in our history was an inquiry into President George Washington’s deployment of the military. In that case, a committee appointed by the House in 1792 was authorized to investigate the disastrous defeat the year before of Gen. Arthur St. Clair by Indians in the Ohio Territory, with the power to issue subpoenas for “persons, papers and records as may be necessary to assist their inquiries.”
Congress is a coequal branch with explicit power to declare war, raise armies and navies and appropriate money for such activities. The Supreme Court has also repeatedly ratified Congressional authority to investigate executive departments. Congressional powers to probe “into departments of the federal government to expose corruption, inefficiency or waste,” the court has stated, are “as penetrating and far reaching as the potential power to enact and appropriate under the Constitution.”
For the past six years, Congress’s oversight function has atrophied in a unitary Republican landscape. To be sure, investigative power should be exercised carefully, thoughtfully and with due regard for the rights of a coordinate branch. But Congress should not shrink from its duty to investigate a reluctant or recalcitrant executive, especially one that, while cloaking itself in secrecy, has boldly asserted unprecedented powers in the initiation and conduct of war — with disastrous consequences that the electorate has now repudiated.
By performing their constitutional obligations, the new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate will surely do right by the Constitution and the country. But they will also no doubt do very well for themselves.