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Is The New White House “Ethics Czar” Against Transparency?

Over at the Sunlight Foundation, co-founder Ellen Miller provides more reasons to fret about the departure of White House “ethics czar” Norman Eisen, whose duties will be assumed by Bob Bauer, the White House council:

From an outsider’s perspective it’s clear. Instead of having single touch point within the Administration we will now be working with one person who already has more than a full-time job, and an academic with no government experience. Sorry, but this doesn’t add up to a strong continuing commitment by the Administration to these issues. This concern is magnified manifold when Eisen’s key successor – Bauer — can hardly be described as having the DNA of a ‘reformer.’ This is the man who invented the rationale for the acceptance of “soft money’’ – unregulated (chiefly corporate) funds that flooded elections to the tune of $1.5 billion between 1992 and 2002, and the man who sided with arch conservatives in their defense of lack of transparency.

Some of the aforementioned seem like good reasons, like the fact that Bauer’s double duties will mean that his attention will be divided, at best, when he takes on transparency issues at the White House. The attacks against Bauer’s commitment to reform are only somewhat convincing, however.

As evidence, Miller appears to cite Bauer’s book, More Soft Money Hard Law, which detailed the intricacies of campaign finance law following McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation in 2002, and the fact that Bauer provided legal advice to Democrat-friendly 527 groups during the 2004 elections — though she only links to a list of “soft money” totals between 1992 and 2002. Neither of these facts, taken on their own, seem to indicate that Bauer is anything other than an expert on the subject of campaign finance.

Yet Miller also highlights a blog item written by Bauer in which he points out an argument, made by others, that the act of disclosure is not always without cost. Citing the controversy over the harassment of donors to Prop 8 in California, he writes:

Disclosure as a regulatory tool in political finance will not soon come under extensive re-consideration. Its virtues are largely unquestioned, except in the rare case where identifiable minority interests are plainly, foreseeably at risk. But it is useful to reflect from time to time on the facile acceptance of disclosure without any sensitivity to the costs for those whose political preferences, expressed perhaps with only a handful of dollars, are exposed to the wired world, along with precise information about where they live or work. “Downsides”, for sure.

The blog post points out a point of view rather than encapsulate Bauer’s opinion on the subject as whole, yet it does reflect the general nature of his posts: namely, that improving disclosure is not a cut and dry issue moral issue without downsides. This is a contrarian point of view and would certainly rile those in the transparency community. It also merits further investigation into Bauer’s stance on the issue as a whole.

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