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In the Public Interest: The Change We Need? Influence Culture and Obama Year One

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"The Change We Need." President Obama sailed into office buoyed up by this now-familiar mantra, stating clearly his goal to change the way Washington operates, to forever alter the influence peddling-culture.

So did we get what we needed? That question is on the mind of every government reform advocate as he or she looks back on the Obama administration's first year. Did we get the "change," we were promised, and if not, where do we go from here?

On Monday the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and four other leading government reform groups issued a report card (click here for PDF) which looks at the administration's first year of lobbying, ethics, and transparency reforms.

The report card lauded the fact that, without a doubt since coming to office, the Obama administration has made clear its determination to reduce the culture of influence-peddling which has become so pervasive in Washington. It has also taken a set of necessary first steps. However, our report card also notes that more deep and lasting reforms are necessary to truly change the corrupting influence of special interest money.

On his first full day in office Mr. Obama issued Executive Order 13490 (PDF), the "Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel." This and the other orders which quickly followed created the toughest revolving door standards in history to keep former government employees from lobbying the executive branch, and additionally created the first-ever "reverse-revolving door" standards aimed at keeping former lobbyists from serving in related fields in the executive branch. The rules also established a strong lobbyist gift ban, limited lobbyist participation on advisory boards, and attempted to keep them from shaping stimulus and TARP spending.

The objections raised by some in the wake of these orders are that the administration is losing years of accumulated expertise by keeping registered lobbyists out of the administration and off of advisory boards.

We see it differently. The administration may lose a little expertise, but the fact of the matter is that lobbyists are paid to have a point of view; they have an agenda. The administration's intent is to get deep-seated special interests out of the business of running our government. Removing a constituency with a fiduciary interest behind their opinions and replacing it with public servants working in the public interest is a step in the right direction.

But the important thing to keep in mind when looking back at this year is that while these reforms to the executive branch are a step, without a more profound change, which addresses the corrupting money culture, we won't get "the change we need."

In order to improve its report card grade, the administration needs not only to address lobbyist influence and increase transparency in government. The White House should also to support strong reforms to reduce money's influence throughout our political system.

Specifically, in 2010 the administration should focus on improving and reforming our congressional and presidential public financing systems, and on creating a new campaign enforcement system to replace the deadlocked and ineffectual Federal Election Commission.

Also, without comprehensive campaign finance reform, we can never hope to lessen the influence of corporate donors on our elected officials and political system.

Taking all that into account, where do we stand on "the change we need," at the one year mark?

On the one hand, the administration has created new benchmarks for open government and taken important steps to show that it is serious about changing the rules of the game in Washington.

On the other hand, we have not yet seen direct action to deal with the heart of our business-as usual, he-who-pays-the-piper-calls-the-tune culture: namely, the campaign finance system that allows our elected officials and their campaign coffers to accept millions of special interest dollars.