President Barack Obama on Wednesday ordered a pay freeze for top aides making $100,000 or more and signed a series of orders aimed at creating the open government he promised on the campaign trail.
Obama said the moves were aimed at helping to “restore that faith in government without which we cannot deliver the changes we were sent here to make,” drawing a barely veiled contrast between himself and a predecessor who was accused by critics of excessive secrecy and abuses of the law.
In the executive orders and memoranda he signed Wednesday afternoon in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Obama announced that no lobbyist will be allowed to take a job in an area where they lobbied. Nor would former lobbyists who come to work for him be allowed to lobby the administration after leaving government service.
He banned gifts from lobbyists to administration officials. And he said he’d require all those who serve him to commit in writing to refrain from influencing colleagues for two years. The moves represent “a clean break from business as usual,” Obama said.
Obama’s announcement fulfills a campaign pledge – but one that he watered down significantly over the course of his presidential campaign.
Initially, the new president pledged that lobbyists would not be allowed to work in his administration.
"They have not funded my campaign, they will not get a job in my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president,” Obama told Iowa Democrats in November of 2007.
He eventually tweaked his stump speech to promise that lobbyists wouldn’t “run” his White House.
The White House has yet to release the text of the rules, making it difficult to gauge their strictness.
But they don’t seem to bar former consultants, who often function in ways similar to lobbyists, from working on their pre-White House portfolios, nor do they limit officials from working on issues on which their spouses lobby.
Also, in a nod toward the difficult economic times many in the country are facing, Obama said his senior White House staff would be subject to a pay freeze. Aides said the freeze would kick in for senior staff making $100,000 or more.
The new president also said Freedom of Information act requests would be more routinely approved by his administration.
“For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city,” Obama said. “The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over.”
Hinting more directly at Vice President Dick Cheney, who sought to keep information about White House meetings concealed, Obama added: “The mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean that you should always use it,”
In a statement sent out following Obama’s announcement, the White House said that senior aides would be tasked with producing an “Open Government Directive” within 120 days directing specific actions to implement the principles in the memorandum. The memorandum on FOIA instructs gives the Attorney General the same time frame to issue new guidelines on government transparency.
Before deciding to bar information from public view, Obama said he would consult with his Attorney General and White House counsel – a move aimed at curbing the Bush administration’s penchant for making information classified. President George W. Bush argued that as president, he had the right to classify – or declassify – information as he saw fit.
Further, and in a move that will greatly please historians and students of the presidency, Obama issued an order aimed at offering more access to White House documents.
Bush angered scholars and open-government advocates with an executive order in 2001 giving ex-presients and presidents the authority to block release of White House records.