President Obama Sets Rules on Ethics and Transparency

Jan 21, 2009 3:28pm

"Still getting used to that whole thing," President Barack Obama said today as he walked into a briefing room in the old Executive Office building and roughly 100 staffers and members of the media stood.

The crowd laughed, but the news the president was about to deliver was about to cost a lot of them some serious cash, as Mr. Obama signed two executive orders and three presidential memoranda dealing with ethics and transparency, and instituted a pay freeze for senior staff.

Mr. Obama said that yesterday at his inauguration that he was "inspired by the sight of Americans as far as the eye could see. They were there because they believe this is a moment of great change in America, a time for reinvigorating our democracy and remaking our country. They’ve entrusted all of us with a great responsibility. And so today I’d like to talk with you about our responsibility to keep that trust."

Adding that during this period of economic crisis, "families are tightening their belts and so should Washington," the president said he was ordering a pay freeze on senior White House staffers who make $100,000 a year or more, officially called the Presidential Memorandum Regarding Pay Freeze.

"Some of the people in this room will be affected by the pay freeze, and I want you to know that I appreciate your willingness to agree to it, recognizing that it’s what’s required of you at this moment," he said. "It’s a mark of your commitment to public service."

The president then announced "firm rules of the road for my administration and all who serve in it … 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."

The Executive Order on Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel requires that lobbyists who become members of Obama administration will not be able to work on matters they lobbied on for two years, or in the agencies they lobbied during the previous two years. Anyone who leaves the Obama administration will not be able to lobby his administration. The orders also instituted a ban on gifts by lobbyists to members of the administration.

There have already been notable exceptions to this rule, with one of them being Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, who was a registered lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon before being appointed. Obama administration spokesman Tommy Vietor had said that "we are aware that Mr. Lynn lobbied for Raytheon, and are working with Mr. Lynn to craft a role for him that is consistent with the president-elect’s high standards while balancing the need to fill this critical national security position."

On the issue of transparency, Mr. Obama said he would require his administration to consider the Freedom of Information Act and the general concept of openness and transparency in a different way than in previous administrations.

"For a long time now there’s been too much secrecy in this city," Mr. Obama said. "The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing some thing to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. 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."

The "Presidential Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government" instructs three senior administration officials to produce an Open Government Directive within 120 days directing specific actions to implement principles of openness and transparency.

The "Presidential Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act" instructs the attorney general to issue new guidelines to the government implementing those same principles of openness and transparency in the FOIA context, also within 120 days.

"I will also hold myself, as president, to a new standard of openness," he said, by signing the Executive Order on Presidential Records.

Going forward, he said, "any time the American people want to know something that I or a former president wants to withhold, we will have to consult with the attorney general and the White House counsel, whose business it is to ensure compliance with the rule of law. Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be … withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well grounded in the Constitution."

– jpt

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