Obama administration wins high marks for ‘transparency’

The Obama administration has scored high marks for curbing lobbyist influence and transparency, says a new report by a group of government watch dogs.

According to the report authored by Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters and U.S. PIRG, “The cumulative effect of the administration’s actions has been to adopt the strongest and most comprehensive lobbying, ethics and transparency rules and policies ever established by an administration to govern its own activities.”

The report covered seven areas, of which the administration earned “As” or “Bs” in six.

First, the president altered the rules governing the ability of former administration officials to find jobs as lobbyists. The new rules, handed down on President Obama’s first day in office, prohibit any member of the administration who might leave it from “lobbying for compensation” as long as Obama is in office. In addition, the rule places other unprecedented restrictions on former administration officials who make official requests from the departments or agencies they worked in.

The rule may seem minor, but as the report notes, “[p]ublic officials may be influenced in official actions by the implicit or explicit promise of a lucrative job in the private sector with an organization seeking to shape public policy on matters of economic importance to the organization or seeking a government contract or grant.”

The new rule closes off potential influence-peddling, for which the administration earned an “A.”

The report also awarded “As” to the administration for new transparency rules ordered by the president that make some White House documents a matter of public record, such as visitor logs held in such secrecy by the Bush administration.

In addition, the report singled out new rules that prohibit federal agencies from hiring registered lobbyists. According to the report, the Bush administration “installed numerous top officials in regulatory agencies who were lobbyists or representatives of the industries they were appointed to oversee.” J. Steven Griles, a coal industry lobbyist , and Philip Cooney, who worked for the American Petroleum Institute, for example, were hired to help shape Bush’s energy and climate change policies.

Essentially, the coal and oil industries wrote Bush’s policy of denying the impact of climate change and his rejection of the need to invest in the renewable energy sector.

The comprehensive report further praised the president for its ban on gifts from lobbyists, restrictions on their ability to seek Recovery Act funds, and their ability to sit on federal advisory boards and commissions.

The report gives the administration a “no grade” for its apparent slowness in imposing tougher restrictions on the persons or interests seeking access to TARP funds (for the Wall Street bailout) than had been created by the Bush administration. When the Bush administration created the program, it came under sharp criticism when it was revealed that banks simply filled out a one or two page request for funds, the details of which it could keep private. The new rules require all written requests for funds to be publicly available.

Upon release of the report, Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform Norm Eisen, who helped advise the president on many of these reforms, commented that the president has also ordered every federal agency to adopt open government policies, expanded public access to government documents through the Freedom of Information Act, and the creation of a “declassification” center to make egret documents publicly available more quickly.

“This work has represented the first important steps in making government more accessible and accountable,” Eisen said.

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer told reporters that president’s actions on transparency and ethics is unprecedented. Greater openness encourages more civic participation and faith in government, through ensuring accountability and honesty, he said. “We’re very pleased that these reform groups recognized that in this first year report card,” Pfeiffer remarked. “But it’s only the first step of a process.”

He added that the president is committed to further reforming campaign finance rules to reduce lobbyist influence.


White House Photo



Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).