Report: Obama hasn’t done enough to curb big-money influence

The Obama administration did not make “significant progress” cleaning up Washington in its first year, according to an independent report to be released Tuesday.

Global Integrity found the United States to be the second least corrupt country in the study and complimented the White House for its lobbying and ethics initiatives. But the report notes the administration has not taken bold action on what many watchdog groups believe remains the root of the problem: money in politics.

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The international nonprofit group, which seeks to root out government corruption, analyzed the record of 35 different countries in curbing corruption last year.

“Despite a change of administration in the United States in 2009, significant progress has not been achieved in curbing corruption at the national level in the U.S.,” the group noted in a press release announcing the findings of the study.

Nathaniel Heller, Global Integrity’s managing director, said to take out corruption in Washington, the administration will have to “to minimize the influence of special-interest money in politics, an area that will prove challenging in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow greater levels of corporate and union spending on election advertising.”

Heller was referring to the recent Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case, on which the high court delivered an opinion last month.

The decision voided election law restrictions on spending by corporations and unions, allowing them to dip into their general treasury funds and expressly advocate for or against a candidate.

The White House said the report seemed to agree with the course of action it has taken since the court decision.

“They acknowledge the good work we have done including with transparency in the executive branch, and moving forward they recommend strong attention to getting special-interest money out of politics,” Norm Eisen, the White House’s ethics counsel, said. “The president agrees and spoke strongly about his agenda in that regard in the State of the Union.”

According to the report, the U.S. sets the global standard for private money flowing into its political campaigns every year, with a candidate having to spend $1 million to $10 million on a national campaign. And without better controls on election spending, the U.S. “has likely hit a ‘glass ceiling’ in the context of governance and accountability reforms.”

Despite the criticism, the U.S. gets very high marks compared to other countries. It gets a “strong” rating from Global Integrity, coming second only to South Korea, which instituted several major hard-hitting ethics reforms this year, such as restructuring its national anti-corruption agency and getting government information up online.

The study found Vietnam to be the most corrupt country because of its severe restrictions on free speech as well as rampant corruption running through some of its state-run enterprises.

The Obama administration earned high marks in the report for urging federal agencies to disclose more information under Freedom of Information Act requests. In addition, the Open Government Initiative has opened up sets of public data to citizens.

The report graded the countries on anti-corruption efforts using more than 300 indicators from researchers and journalists based on the ground in each nation. Along with the government, the report grades the roles of civil society groups and the press.

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The U.S. received poor marks for some of its anti-corruption mechanisms.

For example, there is no single federal agency that acts as a watchdog for the entire government. Several agencies take up that task, including the Office of Government Ethics, the Government Accountability Office, ethics committees in both chambers of Congress and the Justice Department.

Further, whistleblower protections need to be strengthened, and offices for the inspectors general (IGs) — the agencies’ internal watchdogs for corruption and waste — remain under-funded, according to the report. The Obama administration has also faced criticism from Congress, particularly Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), for its handling of the IGs, as exemplified by the firing last year of Gerald Walpin, the former IG for the Corporation for National Community Service.

But in contrast to the report, several in Washington say President Barack Obama has brought about change to the capital’s culture, noting his aggressive action to curb K Street.

For example, a December 2009 report by the Congressional Research Service said by restricting lobbyists’ access to federal agencies, the White House has “changed the relationship” between lobbyists and administration officials.

In addition, four different watchdog groups — Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters and U.S. PIRG — issued a report card in January on the administration’s lobbying and ethics reforms. The White House got high marks for its efforts.

But like the Global Integrity study, the report card said the prevalence of special-interest money plays “the corrupting role” in American politics and that the administration must pursue reforms in this area.

That direction seems to be where the White House is moving next in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.

Obama himself kicked off the administration’s push for campaign finance legislation by lambasting the court decision in his State of Union address last month. In addition, White House aides have been working with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on their legislation to counteract the Supreme Court decision, which Democrats want to move swiftly through Congress.

“Your first obligation is to put your own house in order,” Eisen said. “We had a series of historic ethics, lobbying and transparency breakthroughs in the executive branch in year one that got high marks from the experts.  Now we are building out from that foundation to go after special interest money in politics more broadly.”