Imposing new lobbying rules by executive order was the easy part for President Barack Obama.
The tougher job will be backing up with permanent reforms the sweeping good government rhetoric he made a centerpiece of his campaign.
His ambitious pledges to fix Washington by bolstering campaign finance, disclosure, lobbying and ethics laws will likely soon collide with three complicating realities few envisioned when Obama began his presidential bid: an economic meltdown requiring a lot of political capital to address, a sense that his own campaign diminished momentum for some of his top proposals, and a political and regulatory landscape that could be more hostile to stricter rules.
The new president has shown signs that he intends to brave those headwinds to push for stricter clean government laws.
Those who’ve worked with him are predicting he’ll seize the chance to remake the Federal Election Commission in his image, even though it could engender the ill will of congressional leaders. And, during his transition, he reached out to the collection of good government groups, soliciting ideas for how to make government more open and accountable and less beholden to big-money interests.
It was the first time that any of reform leaders could remember having their ideas solicited by an incoming president’s team.
They responded with a host of proposals, including some that paralleled the executive orders Obama unveiled Wednesday, setting lobbying rules for government employees as well as others that reflect initiatives that were listed on an initial version of the White House ethics website, such as pushing for an independent watchdog agency to oversee the investigation of congressional ethics violations.
Yet a coalition of the leading reform groups wrote in a letter, posted on Obama’s transition website, that “while other issues on our reform agenda are important,” their “overriding priority ... is to repair the presidential public financing system and to create a new public financing system for congressional races.” Without that, they wrote “the way Washington works is not going to change.”
Public financing was not included on an initial list of Obama’s ethics priorities on the White House website, though the ethics page now includes only a message that it’s being updated to reflect the executive orders. Obama aides did not respond to questions about whether public financing is still a priority.
Obama was criticized when his presidential campaign became the first not to participate in the public financing system. The decision, which reversed a pledge to participate if his Republican opponent did, arguably provided the death knell to the program as currently configured, since Obama was able to raise many times more than the system would have provided — making it likely that future presidential candidates will try to follow his lead.
After announcing his decision to opt out of the system, Obama, who co-sponsored a Senate bill to overhaul the system, wrote in an op-ed “I am firmly committed to reforming the system as president, so that it's viable in today's campaign climate.”
Still, Obama’s move cost him some goodwill with the reform community, which once counted him as a reliable champion.
“I was very disappointed, because I knew it would be devastating to the public financing program,” Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the government watchdog group Public Citizen, said of Obama’s move.
But, Holman said, “Obama keeps assuring us that he’s going to revisit the issue,” possibly supporting a public financing proposal that differs from the one pushed by the reform community by rewarding small donations like the ones that powered Obama’s record-shattering fundraising.
But even if Obama offers a public financing proposal, it’s not clear how much support there would be among Senate Republicans for a proposal from Obama, who has placed a premium on bipartisanship.
His vanquished Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, participated in the current public financing system. He received an $84 million grant for his general election race and wound up being badly outspent by Obama.
McCain, a leading champion of stricter ethics and disclosure laws, would be a logical congressional point man for Obama’s good government agenda.
Yet, while they’ve had some policy conversations, the two have not discussed working together on ethics or campaign finance reform issues, said a close McCain adviser, who did not want to be identified discussing private conversations.
Even though Obama’s reversal on public financing “was not a happy experience for McCain, the adviser said, he’s very interested in helping Obama” on good government issues. “But he’s really going to want something that works and is fair.”
For instance, the adviser said, McCain “would be very supportive and helpful” if Obama decided he wanted to implement a McCain proposal to take the power of recommending prospective FEC commissioners from congressional leaders, who’s influence at the agency has irked reformers, and give it to a new nominating panel.
McCain has sponsored legislation to do that, but its prospects are dim. The adviser said Obama could do it on his own, though. “If Obama was looking for a subject to work with McCain on, you could see that being an appealing one,” the adviser said.
Even if Obama doesn’t embrace McCain’s plan, he could get a chance to reshape the agency, since three of the six commissioners’ terms expire in the next three months.
It would be surprising if Obama didn’t “eventually choose to make his mark by picking half the agency,” wrote Obama transition adviser Robert Lenhard in a law firm newsletter he co-authored.
Lenhard, a former commission chairman who was accused by reform advocates of being insufficiently strict in his interpretation of the law during his tenure on the commission, also pointed to growing consensus among election lawyers that the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts appears inclined “to deregulate campaign finance law, and the only question is how much and how far.”
Lenhard was tapped by Obama to make recommendations on how to improve the commission. But he told Politico that his comment about Obama’s approach to overseeing the FEC was based on “many years of experience in watching Washington work. It was not based on any information conveyed to me by the Obama team.”
He would not say whether he recommended that Obama change the structure of the agency, which recently has taken heat for a string of 3-3 stalemates on enforcement decisions and its implementation of a bundling disclosure provision that critics say leaves key loopholes.
Obama happened to have been among the sponsors of that provision, which he touted on the campaign trail as a top legislative accomplishment.
That should give Obama extra incentive to “send a signal right at the outset” about the importance of government reform issues to his administration, said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the nonprofit government reform group Campaign Legal Center.
“Everyone understands that we’re in the midst of this economic crisis and the war and that [campaign finance] isn’t a top priority,” said McGehee, who expressed her frustration at the agency in a meeting with Lenhard. “But the other side of this is: Here’s an opportunity to remake an agency that is performing contrary to what the president as a senator thought it should be doing.”