Barack Obama may have instituted the most far-reaching ethics policy in the history of the White House, as his communications staff is keen to say. But one week in office, that high bar has already proven to be a consistent nuisance.
On Wednesday, press secretary Robert Gibbs was tasked, once again, with defending the granting of a waiver to allow a former lobbyist -- in this case, Mark Patterson of Goldman Sachs -- to serve in the administration as chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
His answer left good government hawks puzzled.
"The policy we have is the strongest that any administration in the history of our country has had," Gibbs explained. "The very same people who labeled that policy the strongest of any administration in history also said they thought it made sense for a limited number of waivers to ensure that people could continue to serve the public."
This, it seems, is not entirely true. While many of these organizations have applauded the steps taken by the Obama administration -- including requirements that lobbyists to wait two years before working in the White House on the issue he or she lobbied -- far fewer have said it "made sense" to have exceptions to the rule.
"It isn't surprising he was able to find some people to say that," said Danielle Brian, executive director of Project On Government Oversight. "However, POGO thinks his logic is ridiculous. We understand that maybe the [Health and Human Services] appointee who lobbied for Tobacco Free Kids should get a waiver, and we're fine with that -- he was not lobbying to advance anyone's financial gain. But only the defenders of the status quo think it's okay for the top Raytheon lobbyist to get a waiver. And we don't."
"Lots of us have said that first part," Brian added, in reference to the Obama administration having the strongest ethics policies of any previous White House. "We did, OMB Watch did. But it's the second part that I haven't seen any groups say. Only people like [Robert] Gates, and [John] Hamre of [Center for Strategic and International Studies] - which is not a good government group at all. And I think that even Larry Korb at [the Center for American Progress], which has been the Democratic White House in waiting, was critical of the waiver. Gibbs is dreaming - notice he isn't listing any names?"
Brian was referencing the nomination of William Lynn, a former lobbyists for the defense contractor Raytheon, to serve as the deputy secretary of Defense. Korb confirmed that he believed the waiver granted to Lynn would make it "even more difficult for him to be effective,"
at the Pentagon.
POGO wasn't the only good government organization to pick apart Gibbs' answer. The group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has been critical of the waiver policy from the beginning, arguing that it undermined the basic point of having high ethical standards.
"He can't be talking about us," said CREW's executive director Melanie Sloan. "We don't believe in a never-ending list of waivers. The waivers indicate the administration cannot live with its own policy. Ergo, they should revise the policy and stop pretending they are not hiring lobbyists."
As Sloan sees it, the Obama administration is trying to have its cake and eat it too, claiming the ethics high road except on occasions when it doesn't suit their interests.
The flip side of the argument is one that Gibbs has made at almost every briefing he has given: there is a legitimate public interest in having qualified people serve in influential posts. Just as there is a compelling purpose to instituting demanding and restrictive ethics standards. No policy is perfect. But Obama should -- and has -- won accolades for going further than any previous president, just as he is being criticized for leaving an out-clause in the fine print.
UPDATE: An White House aide points to two quotes praising the waiver policy as "statements... Gibbs was referencing." Both come from longtime, respected Washington observers: Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute (who helped write the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law) and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute.
"This tough and commendable new set of ethics provisions goes a long way toward breaking the worst effects of the revolving door. There are many qualified people for the vast majority of government posts. But a tough ethics provision cannot be so tough and rigid that it hurts the country unintentionally. Kudos to President Obama for adding a waiver provision, to be used sparingly for special cases in the national interest. This is all about appropriate balance, and this new executive order strikes just the right balance." -- Norman Ornstein
"The new Obama ethics code is strict and should advance the objective of reducing the purely financial incentives in public service. I applaud another provision of the EO, namely the waiver provision that allows the government to secure the essential services of individuals who might formally be constrained from doing so by the letter of the code. The safeguards built into the waiver provision strike the right balance." Thomas Mann, Brookings
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