This week I had the honor of speaking about Common Cause Maryland to a very unusual audience - a delegation of Congressional Representatives from Peru.
The group of seven Congressional officials was here with the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based non-profit, non-partisan organization that advances freedom and democracy worldwide. The visit was an opportunity for them to learn how the federal and state governments in the United States maintain high ethical standards, and my speech was an opportunity to talk about the role of advocacy organizations in holding elected officials accountable to those standards.
Preparing for the speech I was more than a little nervous. I knew that the primary language in Peru is Spanish, and that I would most likely be working with a translator -- something I had never done before. I also knew that Peru's government had been through some significant upheavals, and wasn't sure how to make my experiences working in Maryland relevant to their experiences in Peru.
I started where any unprepared person would start -- with a Google search. I learned that Peru is a Federal Republic with a unicameral system, with 120 Senators serving 5 year terms. The country has mandatory voting and over a dozen political parties. There is a free press with some strong national newspapers but the media suffers from heavy conglomeration under corporate ownership.
The difference that struck me the most was the strength -- and the role -- of non-profit organizations in the government. While there are groups working hard in Peru, particularly around human rights and social services, there is no system like ours for allowing advocates to work both as watchdogs and as partners in the process of government. When you think about it, that concept is pretty amazing. This session we held rallies, garnered press attention, and generated letters from citizens to their elected officials. But we also sat at the table with legislators and staff, drafting amendments and developing strategies for passing strong reforms.
When I finished my presentation (the translators only had to ask me to slow down once, which was a true victory for me!) I fielded a lot of good questions. There was significant interest in public funding, and how it creates greater opportunities for women and other minority candidates to run for office. There was interest in how our state legislature works, and one question in particular stuck with me. A Congressman asked, "With only 90 days, and two to three thousand bills introduced each year, how are the legislators able to work through it all?"
The legislators work through all those bills because they work hard, and they also work smart. They work with advocates and advocacy groups who bring citizens, and solutions, to the table.
Turns out Lima and Annapolis have a fair bit in common. We both have many elected officials who are working hard for the public good, and we both have our share of scandals and ethics concerns. Peru has concepts that we could learn from; mandatory voting certainly makes our voter turnout rates look far from democratic, and multiple political parties might lead to less gridlock in DC.
But today I was reminded that the role of Common Cause is a unique and important one. We are the watchdog of Democracy. We give citizens a voice in the government; we hold elected officials accountable; and we fight to make sure our government works. I was proud to speak about that role today and I am proud to carry on that fight tomorrow and every day after.
For more information on the International Republican Institute visit www.iri.org.