Obama scores well for first year on ethics, say watchdog groups

President Barack Obama scores well among ethics watchdog groups in his first year in office, though they’d still like to see more from the president.

Obama has wielded the power of the White House to craft an executive order that limited lobbyist hires in his administration, push federal agencies to share more of their data with the public and begin releasing visitor records for the executive complex on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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“After the last eight years, it is refreshing to see a president, through his rhetoric and action, who understands the way that the system works is a problem. That just a great place to start with,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center.

It’s no surprise Obama has taken a serious view of the issue.

As an senator, Obama championed ethics and transparency. The issue led to the signature legislative accomplishments of his short Senate career — the 2007 ethics bill and a government-spending database he helped create with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oka.).

Watchdog groups that had clashed with the Bush administration have cheered many of  Obama’s moves.

But McGehee said Obama nees to spend more political capital next year on ethics issues, even though this could cause fights with Congress.

“It is like an appetizer. The main course is yet to come,” McGehee said.

Other reform advocates called on Obama to push for public financing of campaigns and to change the dynamic at the Federal Election Commission (FEC). They also said Obama should author an executive order to declassify more information and strengthen ethics enforcement at each agency. 

Obama wins the most applause for putting senior aides in place whose primary job is better ethics and transparency in the federal government. The appointees include Norm Eisen, Obama’s Harvard Law School classmate and the administration’s ethics czar who is stationed in the White House Counsel’s office; Beth Noveck, the deputy chief technology officer who is leading the Open Government Initiative; and Vivek Kundra, the chief information officer.

“What I find most encouraging is that there is a core group of people at the White House who genuinely care about these issues,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at Federation of American Scientists. “There is now ‘someone to talk to’ at the White House in a way that there wasn’t before. And we are already starting to see some results from those conversations, such as the Open Government Directive, and other emerging policies.”

Eisen was the author of the tough executive order, signed by Obama on his first full day in office, designed to slow the revolving door between government and K Street. That order also bans ex-Obama administration officials from lobbying their former colleagues.

“The greatest surprise is just how extensively these revolving door restrictions apply,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “Obama has ushered in the first-ever policy addressing ‘reverse’ revolving door abuses: screening potential nominees to the federal government and managing conflicts of interest among appointees so as to prevent special interests from ‘capturing’ the agencies that regulate them.”

The president has repeatedly targeted K Street, limiting contacts between lobbyists and administration officials on stimulus projects and issuing agency guidance banning lobbyists from serving on advisory boards. That has led to consternation among lobbyists who have pushed back against the measures.

The decision on advisory boards has been condemned across K Street, and groups have pressed the White House, with little success, to change the new rule.

Ethics groups haven’t been entirely pleased with Obama. They’re disappointed with his lack of action so far at the FEC, the agency responsible for overseeing and implementing election and campaign finance law.

The FEC still has three commissioners whose terms have expired. Obama’s one nominee, labor lawyer John Sullivan, has not been confirmed and was criticized by reform advocates as a Washington insider. 

“It seems clear to all interested parties that while the current deadlock of commissioners is in place, no effective enforcement of campaign law can truly occur. We are disappointed that the administration has not moved yet to replace those commissioners that are serving past their appointed limits,” said Lisa Gilbert of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The administration has also been pushed to support public financing of campaigns and to fix the presidential campaign financing system.

Still, Obama has taken a notably different view than the Bush administration on issues of transparency.

Earlier this month, Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for the National Security Archive, helped reached a settlement with the White House that will eventually disclose millions of missing e-mails to the public that were previously lost by the Bush administration. She said next year, Obama should “issue an executive order on classification that reverses the current incentive to overclassify information and that increases the amount of declassified historical material that is available to historians.”

Unlike past administrations, Obama’s White House has been unusually attentive to ethics and transparency and to the reform advocates who lobby for them. They were consulted during the transition and often talk with White House officials to this day.

As a result, one ethics watchdog said public interest groups need to push the administration hard and not be distracted by the new attention paid to them.

“Don’t let the fact that you are being stroked take away your sober judgment. Let’s see what is accomplished,” McGehee said. “The taste of that nice wine may be great but don’t drink the whole bottle.”


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