Thursday, January 22, 2009

So far, so good

The big news of Obama's first day is the order to close down the GOP's secret foreign prison archipelago, end the kangaroo courts for inmates, and accelerate troop withdrawal from Iraq. Those are all important issues. But as a matter of political aesthetics, these things please me even more.

Shutting the revolving door:
Obama rolled out new rules for his appointees, requiring them to sign a pledge meant to disrupt the "revolving door" by which lobbyists flow seamlessly into government and back into the lobbying business.

His aides are barred from lobbying any executive agency for the life of the Obama administration. That means an appointee who leaves the White House in, say, 2010 would be barred from lobbying the executive branch until 2017 if Obama were to serve two terms.

At present, officials who leave an agency or department cannot go back and lobby their old offices for at least one year.

"It's unprecedented," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonpartisan watchdog group Democracy 21. "It basically protects citizens against individuals entering public service and then converting their public service to personal financial gain when they leave."

Lobbyists who join his administration must wait two years before they can take part in any issue on which they lobbied.
And issuing three executive orders to restore transparency to its rightful place as a centerpiece of substantive democracy:
The first order effectively undid a Bush administration policy that had restricted the release of presidential documents.... Bush's rule allowed former presidents, vice presidents and their heirs to cite executive privilege to block the release of documents after they have left office. With his order, Obama essentially threw out that rule, allowing only the current president to block the release of documents and depriving heirs of that right.

The second Obama order was designed to reinvigorate the Freedom of Information Act. Open-records advocates have complained that a memo by former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft in 2001 encouraged executive branch officials to delay or halt the release of documents requested under the law.

The third Obama memo was meant to instill a stronger spirit of openness in government. It directed executive branch employees to "operate under principles of openness, transparency and of engaging citizens with their government."
The first two rules are the most direct, but for my money the last one is the most important one, since it speaks to the spirit of governance. Small Precautions has argued for years that substantive democracy depends on a variety of tacit norms of political decency, many of which were actively and intentionally violated by the Bush regime, with transparency and openness at the head of the list. My great worry for the last four years especially was that the Bush regime's violations of those norms would be impossible to reverse, that is, that Bush was doing irreparable, irreversible damage to the fabric of our democratic culture. But Obama is showing a determination to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

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