Obama’s Ethics Agenda Seems to Be Lost

Posted April 20, 2009 at 4:45pm

President Barack Obama’s ethics agenda, the most ambitious ever proposed by a new administration, was posted on the White House Web site at noon on Jan. 20. But, a few hours later, it vanished, replaced by this notice: “The ethics section is currently being revised to reflect President Obama’s Executive Order concerning Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel, issued on January 21, 2009. Please check back soon.—

Ethics reform evidently does not seem so urgent now. The economic crisis and the war in Afghanistan loom larger, and many other initiatives compete for the administration’s attention. But that is a mistake. Ethics may be the most important issue because efforts to deal with all the others issues risk being disrupted if it is neglected. Ethics is mainly about confidence in government, an essential ingredient for advancing any reform.

Obama’s ethics efforts have come under siege from two sides. Some say he is forsaking the high standards that he promised, allowing too many waivers and failing to insist on the thorough vetting necessary to avoid Tom Daschle-like imbroglios. Others object that the tougher standards are unrealistic, discourage talented people from entering government and should be relaxed so that critical jobs in Treasury and other departments can be filled sooner.

Both criticisms are misdirected because they focus too much on individuals. The first leads to extravagant vetting and endless disclosure, as if they could guarantee ethical purity. The second criticism capitulates to annoyed nominees, whose complaints often suggest that they do not sufficiently appreciate the importance of maintaining public confidence. If so, they may not be the most suitable appointees anyhow.

A great virtue of Obama’s agenda is that it recognizes that ethics reform is essentially governmental reform — targeted more to institutional defects than personal delinquencies. It goes beyond the usual suspects — conflicts of interest, revolving doors and improper gifts — and tries to capture a whole gang of practices that threaten the integrity of the democratic process, notably the enemies of transparency and accountability.

The agenda sets out 21 specific goals in five different areas of government reform — including not only the executive order to close the revolving door on former and future employers, but also proposals to stop the practice of writing legislation behind closed doors; reform the political appointment process; end no-bid contracts; publicize tax loopholes, earmarks and regulatory agency business; hold 21st-century fireside chats; and protect whistle-blowers. (The agenda, lurking somewhere in cyberspace, was last seen at change.gov/agenda/ethics_agenda.)

If Obama restored the institutional core of his agenda to center stage, the damage done by the inevitable missteps of nominees and appointees might be more readily tolerated, and the obsession with individual vetting and disclosure might be less intensely consuming.

But even if the institutional agenda returns from cyberspace, it has no safe place to land. Obama has proposed no effective way to carry it out. Congressional committees, whether focused on ethics or government oversight, are preoccupied with other business, and not necessarily in the way that the president might wish. The jurisdiction of the Office of Government Ethics is limited to the executive branch and focused more on conflict-of-interest rules than the broader parts of Obama’s agenda. The White House counsel’s office handles ethics matters for the president’s staff, but its work consists mostly of applying legalistic rules to individual cases.

The ethics task as defined by Obama is too wide-ranging to be left to lawyers, or any one kind of expert. It requires the contributions of political scientists, political philosophers, ethicists, organizational behavior theorists, maybe even economists. And it is too complex to be left to the disjointed ethics regime that now exists.

Data about trends, enforcement, best practices and other information are not available in a single accessible source. Rules and forms are duplicated without any apparent reason. Without coordination, well-intentioned reforms in one practice may have unintended adverse effects on other practices. When rules regulating lobbying are strengthened in government agencies, lobbyists simply devote more resources to campaign committees and fundraising. The aim, of course, should not be to try to stop the flow of influence, but to recognize that efforts to regulate it require attention to all of its potential points of entry.

What is needed is a coordinated and comprehensive effort centered in the White House. One way to address this need would be to create a new body devoted to ethics policy and government reform. Call it the Council of Ethics Advisers. It would review current procedures, examine the effectiveness of enforcement, report on trends in compliance and violations, explore best practices in the states and other countries, and provide opinions on relevant Congressional legislation.

Or if this seems too audacious, a more modest first step would be to establish a small ethics team in the Office of Management and Budget. Political ethics, as Obama’s agenda recognizes, is in good part about good management.

Obama’s ethics agenda proposes change that citizens who care about the health of the democratic process can believe in. Yet his broad agenda is not accompanied by the comparably broad process required for carrying it forward. Nothing less than sustained planning and coordination from the White House can continue this critical part of the “journey to change the way that Washington works.—

Dennis F. Thompson, the Alfred North Whitehead Professor at Harvard University, is the author of “Ethics in Congress: From Individual to Institutional Corruption— and “Political Ethics and Public Office.—