By Robert Brodsky
January 21, 2009Fulfilling a promise he made on the campaign trail to run a more transparent and accountable administration, President Obama on Wednesday significantly tightened federal ethics rules for White House officials.
During an afternoon ceremony at the Old Executive Office Building, in which senior White House staff were officially sworn in, Obama announced details of his first executive orders.
Executive branch staff will not be allowed to accept gifts from lobbyists and will be forbidden from lobbying the administration after leaving government. Federal agencies must be more compliant in producing documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act. And the salaries of White House employees making more than $100,000 per year will be frozen.
"These steps are aimed at establishing firm rules of the road for my administration and all who serve in it, and to help restore that faith in government, without which we cannot deliver the changes we were sent here to make," Obama said.
He signed two executive orders and three presidential memoranda.
One executive order attempts to close the revolving door relationship among K Street lobbyists and the White House.
Former lobbyists taking a position in Obama's administration will be prohibited from working on issues they previously promoted or at agencies they lobbied during the previous two years. Gifts from lobbyists to anyone serving in the administration will not be allowed, Obama said. Meanwhile, officials who leave government will be barred permanently from lobbying the Obama administration.
"We need to make the White House the people's house, and we need to close the revolving door that lets lobbyists come into government freely and lets them use their time in public service as a way to promote their own interests over the interests of the American people when they leave," Obama said. "As of today, lobbyists will be subject to stricter limits than under any other administration in history."
Appointees also would be required to certify that they received their job based on their qualifications, competence and experience rather than political connections. And they must attend ethics briefings on the new rules. Obama said he participated in such a briefing last week.
The director of the Office of Government Ethics, who is responsible for enforcing the order, will develop recommendations for expanding the revolving door order to all executive branch employees who are involved in the procurement process. The order was welcomed by government and special interest watchdogs.
"President Obama's executive order on ethics constitutes a major step in setting a new tone and attitude for Washington that challenges the lobbyist, special interest culture that pervades the nation's capital," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the advocacy group Democracy 21. "We strongly praise President Obama for issuing this landmark executive order on his first day in office and demonstrating by his actions that he takes very seriously the importance of protecting the integrity of the government he leads and, in so doing, the interests of the American people."
A second executive order prohibits anyone other than the president from asserting executive privilege to prevent the release of records after an administration ends. The attorney general and White House counsel will review all claims of executive privilege relating to covered records to make sure they are warranted by the Constitution.
During the Bush administration, political adviser Karl Rove, chief of staff Josh Bolten and White House counsel Harriet Miers claimed executive privilege to exclude themselves from providing information about the firing of nine U.S. attorneys to congressional committees.
Obama also signed two memos focused on transparency and openness.
In the first, he instructs three senior officials to produce an open government directive within the next 120 days. The other memo directs the attorney general to issue new guidelines instructing agencies to comply with the letter and the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.
"The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed," Obama said. "That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known. … Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."
Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, cautioned that the mechanics of implementing the FOIA changes will be difficult.
"We have incredibly long wait times for FOIA requests now because you don't have the personnel or processes inside to respond quickly," Stier said. "One side of the equation is to set aggressive transparency dictates. But you can't forget the operational demands that have to be put in place to meet those aggressive goals. You don't want a paper rule; you want one that is, in fact, in place and that's going to require the potential responsiveness of agencies in many places. It's one thing to legislate; another thing to make it happen."
Noting that families across the country are tightening their belts, the new president also issued a memo freezing the salaries of roughly 100 of his highest paid aides.
Elizabeth Newell contributed to this report.
By Robert Brodsky
January 21, 2009