Obama creates a transparent government

January 21, 2009 7:27:25 PM PST
President Obama took a big step Wednesday towards a more open and transparent government after signing executive orders that change the rules on lobbying and government secrets.

These are potentially very big changes for the federal government. First, he tightened controls on lobbying in congress. Second, to make sure the government is held accountable, Barack Obama promised to open up the freedom of information.

During the campaign, candidate Barack Obama promised to make the White House the people's house. On Wednesday, President Obama said that means a clean break from business as usual.

"When you leave government, you will not be able to lobby my administration for as long as I am president and there will be a ban on gifts by lobbyists to anyone serving in the administration as well," said President Obama.

To hold his administration accountable the president promised to open up access to government information.

"Starting today every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known," said Obama.

"These are good steps, they're in the right direction, I think in many cases they're long overdue," said Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity.

The Center for Public Integrity is an organization that's been trying to find out why coal ash dumps, like the one that has fouled Tennessee's Emory River, are not regulated by the government.

"We wanted to see what was the administration, what were the arguments, who was lobbying and who was trying to say those dumps of coal ash should not be regulated," said Buzenberg.

Buzenberg says that's one of thousands of investigations that have been thwarted by past administrations. Who did Vice President Dick Cheney meet with when he was crafting the Bush Administration's energy policy? Who are the foreign contractors the government has hired in Iraq?

"Right now we're doing a major look at issues around homeland security," said Robert Rosenthal

Rosenthal is director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and has been trying to follow the money.

"For example, why has the state of Wyoming, per capita, gotten more money than any other under homeland security?" said Rosenthal.

Rosenthal says requests for that information and hundreds of other requests are routinely been denied or delayed.

"I mean the government's role with the press historically has been adversarial and Obama is coming out with a completely different point of view and it's remarkable," said Rosenthal.

What the president signed into law still protects privacy and national security, but he's promising a much higher standard.

"The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent and holding it accountable. And I expect members of my administration not simply to live up to the letter but also to the spirit of the law," said Obama.

President Obama has said he doesn't want to spend energy looking back at the Bush Administration. That's a signal that he won't put much energy into investigating the Bush Administration. But if he follows through on his promise to open up government held information, that means not just his administration, but past administrations as well could be investigated. There might be a lot of investigative reporters around the world doing the job for him.