Throughout his political career, Barack Obama has been a leader in the fight for open and honest government. As a U.S. Senator, he spearheaded the effort to clean up Washington in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal. In a politically charged election year, Obama acknowledged that corruption was a problem that plagued both political parties. He subsequently enlisted the help of Republican allies to limit lobbyist influence, shine sunlight into the earmarks process and promote open government.
Promoting Open Government
The American people are tired of a Washington that's only open to those with the most cash and the right connections. Senator Obama has been a strong and consistent advocate of ethics and lobbying reform. Last year, he was one of only 8 Senators to vote against reform legislation taken up in the Senate because he thought the bill was too weak. That legislation did not address some of the largest ethics loopholes, such as the ability of lawmakers to accept subsidized flights on corporate jets, or the ability of lobbyists to curry influence by "bundling" large groups of contributions for lawmakers.
In the 110th Congress, Obama worked with Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) to introduce legislation described as the "gold standard for reform." He then worked with the Senate Leadership to craft strong ethics reform legislation to help restore the public trust in the institution. The final package that passed the Senate includes a number of Obama/Feingold provisions: a full ban on gifts and meals from lobbyists; an end to subsidized travel on corporate jets; full disclosure of who is sponsoring earmarks; additional restrictions to close the revolving door between public service and lobbying shops; and much tighter disclosure requirements for political contributions that lobbyists "bundle."
Taking on Party Leadership for "Most Significant Provision" of Ethics Reform
"The Senate adopted a measure that, for the first time, would require registered lobbyists to disclose not only the limited money they can donate to candidates personally but also the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars they raise from clients and friends and deliver as sheaves of checks -- a tradition known as bundling...the disclosure idea's lead sponsor, Senator Barack Obama... 'has not been the most popular person in our caucus in the last couple of weeks,' said a Democratic aide involved in deliberations over the bill."
-New York Times, January 20, 2007
"The final package is the strongest ethics legislation to emerge from Congress yet...Mr. Reid, along with Sens. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), deserves credit for assembling and passing this package."
-Washington Post, Editorial , January 20, 2007
Empowering Citizens to Crack Down on Government Waste
Every American has the right to know how the government spends their tax dollars, but for too long that information has been largely hidden from public view. That's why Senator Obama and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) teamed up to pass a law that will lift the veil of secrecy in Washington by creating a Google-like search engine that will allow regular people to track approximately $1 trillion in federal grants, contracts, earmarks and loans online. More than 100 organizations across the political spectrum praised this legislation.
An "Unlikely Alliance" for Reform
"Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a fast-rising leader in the Democratic Party, and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), whom conservatives view as one of their most principled spokesmen, have forged an unlikely alliance in the debate on lobbying reform...An aide to Coburn said that his boss admires Obama's integrity. 'He has a lot of respect for him,' said John Hart, Coburn's communications director. 'He sees him as someone who has a good heart and principled and not mindlessly partisan.'"
-The Hill, March 29, 2006
"It would enable the public to see where federal money goes and how it is spent. It's a brilliant idea...In 1802, Thomas Jefferson called for more transparency in government spending...Anything that allows a clearer look at the way our government doles out money -- including on defense -- is a bonus. Thomas Jefferson definitely would have voted "yes" for this."
-Chicago Sun Times Editorial, July 25, 2006
Fighting Wasteful No-Bid Contracts in Wake of Hurricane Katrina
After Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency used emergency authority to enter into open-ended, no-bid contracts. What was meant to be a temporary stop-gap ballooned into wasteful contracts that lasted many months and wasted more than $2 billion in taxpayer dollars, according to the Government Accountability Office. Obama teamed up with Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to pass legislation to fight this practice by restricting the use of emergency contracting only to urgent needs in the immediate response to emergencies. The two senators have introduced legislation to establish better oversight of Katrina reconstruction funds and have placed consistent pressure on FEMA to reduce wasteful contracting practices.
Putting Teeth into Congressional Ethics Rules
Congress can pass all the ethics rules it wants, but without meaningful independent enforcement, these new rules are less effective. Senator Obama introduced legislation to create an independent ethics commission to receive complaints from the public on alleged ethics violations by members of Congress, staff, and lobbyists. The commission would have the authority to investigate complaints and present public findings of fact about possible violations to the House and Senate Ethics Committee and Justice Department. By taking the initial fact finding out of the hands of members of Congress, who are often reluctant to investigate their colleagues, the bill ensures prompt and fair treatment of public complaints.
"This legislation would do more to reform ethics and lobbying than any other piece of legislation introduced thus far because it goes to the heart of the problem: enforcement."
Shining Light on Earmarks and Pet Projects
Over the past 12 years, the number of earmarks (pet projects promoted by individual legislators) in the federal budget has tripled to 16,000, totaling $64 billion a year. Many of these projects are important, but many are wasteful and only benefit special interests. Senator Obama introduced the Transparency and Integrity in Earmarks Act to shed light on all earmarks, by disclosing the name of the legislator who asked for the earmark and a written justification for each, 72 hours before the earmarks can be approved by the full Senate. Senators would be prohibited from advocating for an earmark if they have a financial interest in the project. Finally, earmark recipients would have to disclose to an Office of Public Integrity the amount that they have spent on registered lobbyists and the names of those lobbyists. Parts of this legislation were passed by the Senate in January 2007.
Senator Obama also introduced the Curtailing Lobbyist Effectiveness through Advance Notification, Updates, and Posting Act (The CLEAN UP Act). The bill aims to improve public access to information about all legislation, including conference reports and appropriations legislation, in particular after hurried, end-of-session negotiations. Conference committee meetings and deliberations would have to be open to the public or televised, and conference reports would have to identify changes made to the bill from the House and Senate versions. Finally, no bill could be considered by the full Senate unless the measure has been made available to all Senators and the general public on the Internet for at least 72 hours.
"The more Americans learn about how their hard-earned dollars are handled-or really, mishandled-by Washington the more demand there will be for effective, far-reaching reform. Who will dare stop them? There are plenty of powerful politicians and lobby groups who recognize it is in their best interest to preserve the status quo. Let's hope they fail and that Coburn, Obama and the people will prevail."
-Steve Lilienthal, Director of the Center for Privacy and Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation.