Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

“I ask how and why this decision was reached,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said in the Senate recently. He was calling for an investigation into President Trump’s decision to pull US forces out of Syria. “Are we so weak and so inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America?”

A good question, but if the Senate does launch an investigation, do you imagine Romney will get even close to posing it directly to the President? I didn’t think so.

We have a presidential accountability problem that has significantly worsened over the years. We’re losing the ability to call presidents to account on a regular basis for their actions and the way they fulfill the responsibilities of office. Sure, we have the big guns: elections and impeachment. But these are drastic steps, hard to employ and infrequently available.

What I’m talking about is a way for knowledgeable people to step beyond the White House’s control of presidential appearances, ask tough questions, and get real answers so that the American people can judge the President’s actions and reasoning.

When Franklin Roosevelt was president, the press corps had plenty of opportunities to hold his feet to the fire. When more formal press conferences took hold, they were frequent and generally free-wheeling affairs. Americans learned a great deal both about the men who inhabited the Oval Office and their thinking. Over time, however, press conferences became infrequent, stage-managed performances.

So how do we get the President to outline the thinking behind a policy? Or go into details on what led to a given decision? When Congress is working properly it can hold presidents and their administrations accountable through hearings, probes, and formal investigations. These are vital, but they don’t offer a regular chance to hear a president explain what’s going on.

Simply put, that’s what we should be doing: Presidents should have to answer questions regularly about their thinking and their policies, put to them by people who know enough to dig deep. In a representative democracy, that’s how we citizens can judge whether our chief elected leader is representing us and living up to his or her responsibilities.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a Democrat member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.