The White House is characterizing their failure to replace Ethics Czar Norm Eisen as an upgrade. If they wanted to vigorously pursue the portfolio assembled under Eisen, though, they could have replaced him, and fit a new person into the empty slot.
Instead of filling an existing position, though, the White House is carving up Eisen's portfolio, and transferring those responsibilities to the White House Counsel, Bob Bauer, who already has a full plate of Presidential issues. This could bode poorly for some of the issues Sunlight cares about most. Here are some of the issues that will now apparently have to vie for the White House counsel's attention:
Earmark Transparency: In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama called for a single searchable database of all earmarks and earmark requests. In the months since then, we've seen bills introduced in the House and Senate, and a bill reported favorably out of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. The time is ripe for earmark transparency to be solved through online disclosure, and yet the White House has remained silent since the SOTU address.
Open Government Directive: The Open Government Directive can either become a dated, rhetorical memo, or a transformative commitment to a new era of openness. Only if the White House holds agencies to their requirements and plans can the Directive have real force. OMB Director Orszag has left, and with Eisen leaving, enforcement faces more uncertainty. When the public compliance dashboard doesn't meaningfully differentiate between failure and progress toward meeting expectations (compare the yellow to the red in this chart), we can expect clarity in enforcement to continue to be a concern.
Citizens United: The White House is clearly committed to passing a legislative fix to the Supreme Court decision, but will the legislative fight get the attention it needs to succeed?
Whither Ethics.gov?: Ethics.gov was a campaign promise to build a single website with ethics and accountability information to transform government accountability. Does this have any hope of still happening?
Lobbying Disclosure Reform: President Obama also called for reform of lobbying regulations in his State of the Union. While the White House frequently rails against special interest lobbying and disproportional influence, will they have the bandwidth to push for real solutions to this real problem?
Executive Disclosure: The White House made some meaningful first steps in posting ethics filings online, requiring extensive stimulus lobbying disclosure, and posting the Visitor Logs records online for the first time. These aren't well established policies, though, and need a steady hand and a clear commitment to mature into permanent, reliable, effective policies. Will the White House Counsel's office take on these challenges?
Regulatory Failure: In the wake of the failed Minerals Management Service, the Executive continues to fight entrenched incompetence, conflicts of interest, and ineffective regulation. Will the administration respond sufficiently to the oil spill, and the myriad other regulatory failures it represents? Will the ethics and disclosure systems at the heart of our regulatory system get the thorough analysis and reform they desperately need?
These are just some of the issues Sunlight cares deeply about, and they are among the many others our broader community fights for, like whistleblower protection, records management, or regulatory reform.
As we look at the rearrangement in the White House, we're left wondering not just whether they can succeed without a dedicated Ethics Czar, but whether they could succeed if they had hired three of them.