Columns » Max Brantley

Obama: Role model

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President Barack Obama hadn't been president 24 hours before he began fulfilling promises — to close Guantanamo and secret CIA prisons, to begin withdrawal from Iraq and lots more.

Among his first acts were executive orders particularly comforting after the secretive eight years of the Bush administration, a time when the law and Constitution were reduced to a tragicomic opera, “George Knows Best.”

Obama announced a “new standard of openness,” and the fresh, clean air was exhilarating. His example should serve as a template for the Arkansas legislature and governor.

He reinstituted a presumption for disclosure in Freedom of Information requests. I also heard him say that, just because the law allowed secrecy, it didn't always require it. This is a fundamental wisdom about public records that every governor and virtually every public official in my 36 years in Arkansas has refused to acknowledge.

Just because the law might allow secrecy for every shred of paper that passes through the governor's office — a legal proposition as yet never fully tested in Arkansas courts — it doesn't follow that governors MUST shield every scrap of paper. Other states allow you to see the evidence on which governors make executive decisions, such as files submitted on pardon requests or the facts and figures backing up requests for allocations of public money. So should Arkansas governors, even if the law doesn't command it.

Obama revoked a Bush order that allowed secrecy of White House papers, except in cases of national security or specified personal reasons. Arkansas law should be just as open about records of prior gubernatorial administrations. It's vital for historians; vital in preventing bad history from repeating.

Obama said there's been too much secrecy in Washington and it is no less true in Little Rock. We have a decent Freedom of Information Act, but recalcitrant public officials and the expense of court challenges give a great advantage to those who prefer the dark to sunshine. In Arkansas, openness could be encouraged by Rep. Lindsley Smith's 2007 proposal to pay for legal expenses to someone who wins an FOI suit.

Best of all was this: Obama won't allow members of his administration to lobby for two years after leaving government jobs. People hired from lobbying ranks are prohibited from working on matters on which they've lobbied.

The Arkansas lobbying ranks are filled with dozens of former legislators and former state regulators. It's an open secret that many have used their public jobs to establish relationships with future employers and struck deals for future employment before leaving public office. Not only the appearance but the reality of conflict of interest is clear. Yet the latest batch of legislators who turned lobbyist overnight Dec. 31 say they see nothing wrong with the practice.

It is a measure of the pervasiveness of this corrupt practice that most legislators are unwilling to do anything about it. They won't legislate a waiting period to turn lobbyist. They won't legislate meaningful limits and reporting on lobbyist expenditures on legislators. They like the gravy too much to quit licking the bowl.

If Arkansas legislators had political sense, they'd look to Obama and the immense goodwill he brings to office precisely because of the promises he made and how quickly he moved to fulfill them. Of course, these legislators are from Arkansas, where Obama didn't do so hot Nov. 4. I don't think, however, his poor showing was because Arkansas voters oppose more open and ethical government.

 

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