President Obama has abolished the position in his White House dedicated to transparency and shunted those duties into the portfolio of a partisan ex-lobbyist who is openly antagonistic to the notion of disclosure by government and politicians.
Obama transferred "ethics czar" Norm Eisen to the Czech Republic to serve as U.S. ambassador. Some of Eisen's duties will be handed to Domestic Policy Council member Steven Croley, but most of them, it appears, will shift over to the already-full docket of White House Counsel Bob Bauer.
Bauer is renowned as a "lawyer's lawyer" and a legal expert. His resume, however, reads more "partisan advocate" than "good-government crusader." Bauer came to the White House from the law firm Perkins Coie, where he represented John Kerry in 2004 and Obama during his campaign.
Bauer has served as the top lawyer for the Democratic National Committee, which is the most prolific fundraising entity in the country. Then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., the caricature of a cutthroat Chicago political fixer, hired Bauer to represent the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In the White House, Bauer is tight with Emanuel, having defended Emanuel's offer of a job to Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., whom Emanuel wanted out of the Senate race.
Another Bauer client was New Jersey Sen. Robert "Torch" Torricelli back in 2001. When one Torricelli donor admitted he had reimbursed employees for their contributions to the Torch -- thus circumventing contribution limits -- Bauer explained, "All candidates ask their supporters to help raise money from friends, family members and professional associates."
Bauer's own words -- gathered by the diligent folks at the Sunlight Foundation -- show disdain for openness and far greater belief in the good intentions of those in power than of those trying to check the powerful. In December 2006, when the Federal Election Commission proposed more precise disclosure requirements for parties, Bauer took aim at the practice of muckraking enabled by such disclosure.
On his blog, Bauer derided the notion "that politicians and parties are pictured as forever trying to get away with something," saying this was an idea for which "there is a market, its product cheaply manufactured and cheaply sold." In other words -- we keep too close an eye on our leaders.
In August 2006 Bauer blogged, "disclosure is a mostly unquestioned virtue deserving to be questioned." This is the man the White House has put in charge of making this the most open White House ever.
Most telling might have been Bauer's statements about proposed regulations of 527 organizations: "If it's not done with 527 activity as we have seen, it will be done in other ways," he told the Senate rules committee.
"There are other directions, to be sure, that people are actively considering as we speak. Without tipping my hand or those of others who are professionally creative, the money will find an outlet."
This perfectly captures the Obama White House's attitude toward disclosure. Sure, the administration publish the names of all White House visitors, but, as the New York Times reported a few weeks back, White House folks just meet their lobbyists at Caribou Coffee across the street. Sure, they restrict the work of ex-lobbyists in the administration, but lobbyists who de-list aren't questioned.
And we've seen just a few of the e-mails former Google lobbyist, now Obama tech policy guru, Andrew McLaughlin traded with current Google lobbyists using his Gmail account, but who knows what else the White House whiz kids are doing to avoid the Presidential Records Act -- Facebook messages? Twitter direct messages?
Did I mention Bauer was a lobbyist? At Perkins Coie, Bauer lobbied on behalf of America Votes Inc., a Democratic 527 funded by the likes of the AFL-CIO and ACORN.
The Sunlight Foundation is also concerned about the fact the White House no longer has anyone whose job is transparency, as Eisen's job was. John Wonderlich, at SunglightFoundation.com, lists a few transparency promises on which the president hasn't followed through, including earmark transparency, a single Web site (Ethics.gov) with all ethics and accountability information, and better lobbying disclosure, among others.
As with his other reformer rhetoric, Obama's transparency is mostly smoke and mirrors.