Missing the Forest for the Trees?

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It seems the Obama administration has decided the time has come to once again flex its ethics muscles. The Office of Government Ethics announced rules that would extend a lobbyist gift ban to all government employees. The Office of Management and Budget issued guidelines to executive branch agencies to prohibit them from allowing lobbyists to sit on federal boards and commissions.

Generally, we like to applaud the administration for making strides to address influence peddling in Washington, but there comes a point where baby steps simply aren’t big enough to reach the heights necessary to really clean up Washington.

It is long past time for this administration to stop focusing on the low-hanging fruit and take the initiative to address the real and dangerous avenues of influence in our political system. Where should they start? How about with a long dormant executive order that would disclose hidden money given by federal contractors to influence elections? The administration has had ready, since at least April, an executive order that would require disclosure of dark money contributions funneled through shadow campaign organizations. The Chamber of Commerce and its allies in Congress objected to the draft executive order when it was leaked and the administration seems to have given up on it.

And where is the president on the opaque Super Committee? When he signed the law (negotiated in secret) creating the powerful deficit cutting committee, he failed at the time to insist that the bill include a single provision requiring the committee to operate in the sunlight. Now that there are legislative proposals that would correct that omission by requiring disclosure of campaign contributions and special interest lobbying meetings, the administration has remained silent rather than encouraging speedy passage of the law by Congress.

Finally, there is the whole new specter of unlimited secret corporate money infiltrating elections as a result of the Citizens United. The president came out forcefully against the decision. But when the DISCLOSE Act died in Congress, the administration did not come out in support of a streamlined disclosure-only bill. In fact, just the opposite. Administration cohorts and allies started up their own super PAC to solicit funds from the deepest pockets to pay for ads designed to help with the president’s re-election.

That’s what the administration hasn’t done to address dark money in politics. So what about what it is doing? Are the baby steps going to make a difference? Maybe. But we have to ask whether transparency wouldn’t be a less draconian, more effective way of addressing potential avenues of influence in the executive branch. For example, rather than banning lobbyists from federal boards and commissions, while still permitting bank CEOs, oil executives and labor bosses to sit on those boards, wouldn’t it be better if there were more disclosure of myriad financial interests of everyone on a federal advisory board? And on that OGE gift ban, will non-lobbyist lobbyists be able to make their case while nibbling finger food at conferences with executive branch employees, while lobbyists who register and report are shut out of the process? And while we are at it, does the administration think so little of its executive branch employees that it believes they can be bought for the price of a cheese square on a toothpick and a glass of cheap chardonnay?

The administration’s baby steps would look less like cynical ploy to appear strong on ethics if they were coupled with at least some effort to acknowledge the big picture and the big money that is infecting our political process. It’s time for the administration to grow up.

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