Watchdogs Worry about Obama’s New Ethics Czar

The newly appointed White House czar for ethics and transparency, Bob Bauer, is raising alarm bells among good government groups who’ve pointed to his history of defending unchecked special interest spending in elections. Bauer, currently the White House counsel, will be replacing Norm Eisen, who is leaving to become the ambassador to the Czech Republic. As the Washington Independent explains, Bauer has a long history of helping both interest groups and the national party committees get around campaign finance regulations and fight against disclosure requirements:

According to campaign finance reform advocates, Bauer’s biggest transgression comes from his time as lead counsel for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was then that the national party committees exploited a series of loopholes allowing the parties to raise unlimited amounts of “soft money” from corporations and individuals. “It took us ten years to reverse much of the damage that [Bauer] wrought with soft money loopholes,” says Craig Holman, a legislative representative for Public Citizen. “It was his arguments before the [Federal Election Commission] on behalf of the Democratic Party — that was where the soft money loophole first started breaking. And once he got that little hole in the dam, then all these election lawyers just ran with it.”

The “soft money” loophole — which let the national parties use unlimited funds for certain costs unrelated to national elections — had existed since the late 1970s. Under Bauer’s watch, both parties started to exploit it, in earnest.

Watchdog groups accuse Baeur of later working to undermine the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act—also known as the McCain-Feingold Act. They also point to his more recent role in helping EMILY’s List challenge the FEC’s attempt to limit contributions to non-profit advocacy organizations classified as 527 groups.

Bauer’s background certainly brings the Obama administration’s commitment to stricter campaign finance laws into question. While Obama publicly blasted the Citizens United Supreme Court decision for unleashing a floodgate of corporate spending, it wasn’t long ago that his own campaign had chosen to forgo strict campaign finance limits.

As the Independent story reminds us, Obama had chosen to opt out of public financing for his 2008 general election campaign, so that he could raise unlimited money from private donors—a decision that Bauer was closely involved with. While Obama tried to excuse his move by vowing to change the campaign finance rules, he hasn’t returned to the issue in earnest since then. And his newest appointment for Bauer suggests that the administration might not be interested in seriously tightening up such regulations any time soon.