August 12, 2010

Last Friday, the New York Times reported that with the upcoming departure of White House ethics and transparency “czar” Norm Eisen – who soon heads to Prague as our ambassador to the Czech Republic – the White House has revamped its ethics team by adding new Domestic Policy Council member Steven P. Croley and assigning overall leadership responsibility to White House Counsel Bob Bauer. In the wake of this announcement a number of leading NGOs have questioned the wisdom of these changes, suggesting they will weaken, not strengthen, the President’s vision for a more ethical and transparent government. We agree.

To be clear, CREW has not always agreed with this White House’s approach to both ethics and transparency issues. We have been among the first to criticize its demonization of lobbyists and the slow progress in changing actual agency practices under the Freedom of Information Act and other information statutes. But we have lauded the decision to have a highly placed official within the White House Counsel’s Office with close ties to President Obama take the lead on these issues, a move that proved to be more than mere symbolism. Those of us in the access community know that Norm Eisen will take our calls, listen to and take seriously our suggestions, complaints, and criticisms. And we do not question his commitment to the president’s ideals of a more ethical and transparent government. Mr. Eisen has labored hard to make these ideals a reality, and while much work remains real progress has been achieved.

With White House Counsel Bob Bauer at the helm, however, we have good reason to question whether this course will continue. As the president’s top legal advisor, Mr. Bauer’s plate already is quite full and he can hardly be expected to devote the same energy as has Mr. Eisen on transparency and ethics matters. We at CREW certainly have no expectation Mr. Bauer will be able to take our calls, respond to our frequent emails, or grant us the audience Mr. Eisen so willingly provided. As for new addition Steven P. Croley, his credentials may be impeccable but the transfer of some of Mr. Eisen’s portfolio to him leaves the White House Counsel’s Office with less, not more authority, and adds another bureaucratic level to the process.

Some have cynically suggested these changes are calculated to back-burner issues that have been a mixed bag for this administration, drawing as much criticism as praise. In our view, taking the full-time responsibilities of a high-level White House official and divvying them up suggests ethics, transparency and government reform will get substantially less attention, not more.