Obama unveils reform proposals

Obama also pledged to end abuse of no-bid contracts Friday in Manchester, N.H. Obama also pledged to end abuse of no-bid contracts Friday in Manchester, N.H. Cheryl Senter/AP
Placing himself in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt's progressive reforms, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama pledged Friday to free government from undue political and financial influence.

"We need a president who sees government not as a tool to enrich well-connected friends and high-priced lobbyists, but as the defender of fairness and opportunity for every American," Obama said, according to a remarks prepared for delivery at New Hampshire Community Technical College in Manchester.

Obama pledged to place additional restrictions on "revolving door" movement between federal jobs and the private sector and to make contracts and other government transactions more transparent.

"When I am president, I will make it absolutely clear that working in an Obama administration is not about serving your former employer, your future employer, or your bank account," the first-term Illinois senator said. "It's about serving your country, and that's what comes first."

Obama said members of his administration would be required to steer clear for two years of work on contracts or regulations directly related to their former employers. Upon leaving the administration, appointees could not return to lobby until Obama's term in office ended.

Most current policies to limit the revolving door are focused on what employees do once they leave government. For instance, contracting officials are subject to a one-year "cooling-off" period after they leave government, during which they cannot work for a company to which they've awarded a contract above a certain threshold.

Scott Amey, general counsel for the Washington-based watchdog group the Project on Government Oversight, said he is not aware of many rules governing the "reverse" revolving door. There is a section of the Code of Federal Regulations that says federal employees should avoid "an appearance of a loss of impartiality" in performing their duties, touching partly on the need to avoid conflicts of interest while entering and working for the government, he noted.

Stronger guidelines for employees entering would be beneficial, Amey said, adding that another option is stronger transparency or recusal requirements. Restrictions would need to be crafted carefully so that they don't end up turning away "the legitimate person who wants to come back to government" and has good intentions, he noted.

The proposed post-employment restrictions appear reminiscent of those instituted by President Clinton in a 1993 executive order that extended the period appointees were prohibited from lobbying their former agencies to five years and imposed a variety of other limits. Clinton rescinded that order late in his second term, returning appointees to a one-year ban established under a 1978 law.

Obama also pledged to end abuse of no-bid federal contracts, but without providing much detail on his plans. He noted that he worked with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to pass legislation to limit the use of such contracts in emergencies to the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

But Obama said more work is needed, because when contracts are awarded without competition to political friends of an administration, "it doesn't just violate the American people's trust. It takes away the tax dollars they've earned and the valuable services they need."

Obama also said he would ensure the public has at least five days to look online and review the text of legislation he intends to sign, and that information on federal spending, contracts, grants and earmarks is posted on the Web. The latter idea is reflected in the 2006 Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act -- also sponsored by Obama and Coburn -- which mandates the creation of a single, user-friendly Web site for federal spending data.

Finally, Obama noted that he would hire people to work for him based on their qualifications and experience. "Presidents obviously want to surround themselves with those who share their views and their beliefs, but the days of firing eight qualified U.S. attorneys because of their politics are over," he said. "The days of using the White House as another arm of the Republican National Committee are over. And the days of Michael Brown, Arabian Horse Judge, are over."

Several of Obama's competitors have already weighed in on government reform, including Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who pledged to cut 500,000 federal contractors for savings of up to $18 billion annually and also promised to promote competition for contracts.

On the Republican side, John McCain has said he would expand the use of fixed-price contracts -- but make sure the government uses realistic cost estimates -- and limit sole-source awards. He also said he would boost program performance through rigorous evaluations and use retirements as an opportunity to reshape the federal workforce. Rudy Giuliani has said he would replace only half of the civil servants who retired during his term in office.

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