POLITICS
08/13/2010 09:13 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

White House Ethics Initiatives At A Crossroads

The Obama White House's ambitious push for accountability and open government has lost steam, and the imminent departure of reform champion Norm Eisen is making some good-government groups anxious about the future.

Eisen, the White House's seemingly inexhaustible ethics czar, has been nominated by President Obama to be ambassador to the Czech Republic.

He is not being replaced. Instead, his portfolio, which includes transparency and accountability, campaign finance, lobbying, whistleblower protections and government ethics, is being redistributed both up and down the White House food chain.

The already-busy White House counsel, Bob Bauer, is to take the lead, with Steven P. Croley, a University of Michigan law professor, joining the Domestic Policy Council to coordinate the work of a half-dozen lawyers in Bauer's office.

And while some good-government advocates think Bauer will be a very effective fighter for their causes, others are worried that his background as a Washington insider and campaign lawyer make him too much of a political hack to successfully lead the charge for reform, even if he was so inclined.

"Our priorities are different," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation. "This is not a man whose DNA is built on an ethics, openness and a transparency agenda. It's the opposite," she said.

Miller's personal history with Bauer goes back to 1984, she said, when he wrote a memo outlining why it was legal for the Democratic Party to accept "soft money." Soft money was essentially a way for the political parties to blow a hole through the campaign contribution limits established in the 1970s, as long as the money went to "party building activities" and "issue" ads.

"$1.5 billion dollars later, it got shut down," Miller told the Huffington Post. "But this is not the legacy of an ethical czar I would want to see."

Furthermore, Bauer already "has a thousand things to do every day," she said. And Croley "is an academic, he's never had any experience in government and he's going to be in an agency that's never had any impact on this issue."

Miller fired off a public anti-Bauer salvo in the form of a blog post titled "A Setback in the Commitment from the White House".

But last week, another pro-accountability group was welcoming Bauer's new role. "This is the news POGO wanted to hear," Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, said in a statement.

Brian told HuffPost that her optimism arises from conversations she has had with Eisen. (Eisen and a White House spokesman declined to speak to the Huffington Post on the record.)

"Norm is confident that Bauer is going to share his commitment to the issues, because that's what the president wants," Brian said. "And Norm hasn't misled me yet. This is based on his assurance and his emphasis on the fact that the decision they made here was because this is so important to the president."

Brian said Bauer "isn't necessarily one of us." But, she said, "I don't necessarily need him to be one of us if he's doing what the president wants and it's what we want."

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, was even more optimistic. "I think he will be a strong, excellent and effective advocate for the reform agenda," he said of Bauer.

"Norm has done a terrific job and we're very sorry to lose him. In my time, there hasn't been anyone in the White House with his portfolio and his passion for these issues, and a personal relationship with the president -- and unfortunately, that's a long time," he said. Wertheimer has been advocating for open government and trying to reduce the effect of money in politics for "40 years and counting."

"But having said that, I'm also very satisfied with the arrangement that has been made. I say that knowing that in much earlier years, Bob Bauer and I were adversaries on a number of campaign finance fights, and particularly on the effort to create the soft money ban."

"Very few people have reformer DNA" like Eisen has, Wertheimer told HuffPost. "I don't judge this by DNA, I judge this by results and where people are, and Bauer has been very strong on the reform agenda for the last four or five years."

Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, said some of his fellow watchdogs are despairing that Bauer is too busy to effectively take on Eisen's portfolio, and worry that Croley will have no clout -- while others are jazzed about how often Bauer sees the president, and think Croley brings enormous expertise to the job.

"I have a different reaction which is: Trust but verify," Bass said. "You can read tea leaves all day. I think the real issue is proof in the pudding."

Reform advocates largely agree that after a series of dramatic and unprecedented steps by the White House to increase openness and accountability and close the "revolving door" between the executive branch and the lobbying industry, the pace of reform has slowed.

"We were thrilled for the first 10 to 12 months," Sunlight's Miller said. But then after about a year, some of the high-minded directives started sounding like "empty promises," Miller said.

Some initiatives have hit a brick wall in Congress. But others just require the White House to take the next step.

"On the open government agenda, there was some good movement forward," said POGO's Brian. "But there's so much left to be done in terms of implementation."

Directives that would codify Obama's strategy for restoring scientific integrity are more than a year overdue. "There is no reason that hasn't happened yet," Brian said.

And, she added: "There's an entire agenda on federal contracting reform that hasn't even begun yet."

Part of the problem is Obama's susceptibility to pushback, she said. "The president has his agenda, but that requires the agencies to buy in and his leadership style doesn't seem to be LBJ's 'do it or else' with these agencies. So we're not seeing it happen."

Wertheimer took a longer view. "I believe they've done more than any administration before them," he said. "They have an excellent record on what they could do in terms of controlling their own executive branch. But the biggest battles for reform community go to the campaign finance issues, and those have to be done legislatively."

A good "proof of the pudding" test may be coming up shortly, as the administration works with Capitol Hill to finish up drafting new whistleblower protections for federal employees. Brian has been working closely with Eisen on the issue. "I really do think we could be seeing something signed in September," she said.

There is no doubt that Eisen's decision to move on has hit the reform community hard. "When I first learned this was happening, I actually started to cry, and I don't cry very easily," Brian said.

Although Eisen's background was in private law practice, he was also co-founder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group with a particular fervor for going after government misconduct.

The New York Times reported last week that Tony Podesta, arguably the most influential lobbyist in Washington, said "with a laugh" that Eisen's departure was "the biggest lobbying success we've had all year."

"He was incredibly committed, incredibly energetic, and I've just never seen anything like it in any White House," said Brian, who added that Eisen was "burning out" and probably would have left the White House even if he hadn't been offered the Czech Embassy.

"In many respects, Norm is superhuman," said OMB Watch's Bass. "It is his passion and commitment," Bass said. "He deserves enormous kudos for the work he's done. I think what we're all a bit nervous about [is] whether that will continue."

"Everyone will see over time," Wertheimer said. "And in the end, it's not going to be what Bauer does, it's going to be what the president does. It all stems from President Obama; it's been his reform agenda. And he will be the one who in the end will be judged here."

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Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.