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Obama institutes ethics rules, freezes salaries

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama's first public act in office Wednesday was to formalize strict new limits on lobbyists operating in his White House and peel back presidential decision-making to allow more public scrutiny.

Obama made several moves aimed at creating what he called "a new standard of openness" about the behind-the-scenes machinations of his White House -- and those before it.

Chief among them was requiring that the White House consult with the attorney general and White House counsel "any time the American people want to know something that I or a former president want to withhold."

"Information will not be withheld just because I say so," Obama said while attending a ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to swear in about two dozen of his most senior aides. "It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well grounded in the Constitution."

Some of the Bush-era documents generating intense interest, for instance, deal with the highly secretive decision-making process on the CIA's interrogation and detention programs for terrorism suspects. Congress and civil rights and human rights organizations have been clamoring for the information.

Obama revoked an executive order issued by President George W. Bush less than two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that allowed past presidents to exert executive privilege to keep some of their White House papers private. The order was viewed as ushering in a new era of presidential secrecy.

Under the 1978 Presidential Records Act, presidential records are the property of government, not ex-presidents, and are to be released after 12 years, except for those withheld for national security or certain personal reasons specified by law.

Obama also reinstituted a presumption of disclosure for Freedom of Information Act requests about the workings of government. This, too, is a reversal of Bush actions. Reporters and public-interest groups often make use of the law to explore how and why government decisions were made; they are often stymied as agencies claim legal exemptions to the law.

But Obama said he was directing agencies that vet requests for information to err on the side of making information public -- not to look for reasons to legally withhold it.

"For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city," he said.

One of Obama's new rules aimed at tamping down the influence-peddling game said that any lobbyists who get a job across his administration may not work on matters that they lobbied on and cannot even work in any agency they lobbied over the past years.

But William Corr, nominated for deputy secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, is listed in House and Senate records last year as having lobbied the agency, among other entities, on behalf of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

And William J. Lynn III, Obama's choice for the No. 2 at the Defense Department, was listed as a top lobbyist at the Pentagon for Raytheon Co., a major defense contractor.

"Even the toughest rules require reasonable exceptions," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "Our waiver provisions are designed to allow uniquely qualified individuals like Bill Corr and Bill Lynn to serve the public interest in these critical times."

The new lobbying rules also bar any Obama aides from trying to influence his administration when they leave, prohibiting them from lobbying former colleagues for two years.

As a White House candidate, Obama vigorously campaigned against lobbyists' influence and painted himself as an outsider. Yet he allowed lobbyists to work on his transition team as long as they stopped their advocacy efforts, didn't work in the fields they lobbied for and pledged not to lobby on their transition areas for a year.

Obama said the steps "represent a clean break from business as usual." The watchdog group Democracy 21 said Obama called it "the toughest and most far-reaching revolving door provisions ever adopted."

However, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order on his first day in office in 1993 that prohibited senior executive-branch employees from lobbying their former colleagues within five years of leaving their government jobs. The "revolving door" ban remained in effect until Clinton left the White House in 2001, when he lifted it.

Bush issued more general guidance early in his tenure, reminding top aides of the laws dealing with bribery and conflicts of interest. That law permanently banned top executive branch officials from lobbying on matters in which they were personally and substantially involved while in government. For matters over which they had responsibility but not personal involvement, the ban is for two years.

Obama on Wednesday also moved to freeze the salaries of high-paid aides in a mostly symbolic nod to the country's economic turmoil.

The pay freeze would hold salaries at their current levels for the roughly 100 White House employees who make over $100,000 a year. "Families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington," said the new president, taking office amid startlingly bad economic times that many fear will grow worse.

Those affected by the freeze include the high-profile jobs of White House chief of staff, national security adviser and press secretary, as well as some who work in relative anonymity.

The White House said the move would help it stretch its budget, but it will have little practical effect. White House employees aren't due for automatic raises, getting them only at the president's discretion, and in any case the amount in question is small since it deals with only a small portion of the White House staff.