Obama team announces ethics policy, but little else

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 11, 2008 

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama's transition team announced ethics guidelines Tuesday to keep federal lobbyists at arms' length, following through on a campaign pledge to reduce the influence of special interests on policymaking.

Transition co-chair John Podesta committed to monthly reporting of private donations to a transition effort that's expected to employ 450 people and cost $12 million.

Since Congress has appropriated $5.2 million for the transition, the remaining $6.8 million or so will come from donations. Those contributions will be capped at $5,000 per donor, and they can't come from federally registered lobbyists, corporations or political action committees.

Podesta, a former chief of staff for President Clinton, announced these and other steps Tuesday in a wide-ranging news conference at which he pledged a process that's organized, bipartisan and "the most open and transparent transition in history."

He declined to share much new information about whom Obama intends to tap for Cabinet and other administration posts, when or details on how he'll proceed on several policy fronts.

Among highlights from the news conference:

  • Obama has said he intends to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but it's a complicated issue that's still under review as to how to proceed.
  • Obama advisers have several of President Bush's executive orders under review for possible reversal, and will review all of them in time.
  • No Cabinet nominations are expected this week.
  • Obama won't return to the Senate for the lame-duck session of Congress that starts next week.
  • He also won't participate in this weekend's G-20 economic summit hosted in Washington by Bush, though some of his advisers will be available to meet representatives of other nations at their request.
  • Beginning next week, the transition team will conduct reviews of more than 100 federal departments, agencies and commissions.
  • Reports about Obama's meeting Monday with Bush were inaccurate in suggesting that Bush would make auto industry aid contingent on Democrats' support for a Colombia trade agreement.

"While the topic of Colombia came up, there was no quid pro quo in the conversation," Podesta said. "The president didn't link, try to link, Colombia to the question of an economic recovery package going forward. They talked about both of them. The president stated his position on the fact that he thought that Colombia was an important agenda item to get done."

As for whether Obama would ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates to stay, as has been widely speculated, Podesta said that Obama "has great respect for Secretary Gates" but that prior to any decision, a transition team would be briefed at the Pentagon about "ongoing operations" and Obama would "render judgment as a result of and after those briefings occur and he's had a chance to meet with his key advisers."

The ethics rules announced Tuesday are "the strictest, the most far-reaching ethics rules of any transition team in history," Podesta said.

Under them, active federal lobbyists can't work on the transition and those who were registered as federal lobbyists within the past year can work on the transition only if it doesn't involve the policy field they've lobbied about. Anyone who becomes a lobbyist after working on the transition will be prohibited from lobbying the Obama administration on related matters for a year.

The restrictions won't apply to the spouses of lobbyists or to Washington insiders whose advocacy doesn't require them to register as lobbyists.

The transition team also will ban gifts.

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