Political Pre Nups

It is funny that after all the sturm und drang about how Bush chose his advisors for their loyalty over everything else and the Bush Administrations obsession with secrecy that we have this regarding Obama and his incoming administration.

To judge by the moans coming from Democratic lobbyists eager to serve in the next administration, Barack Obama’s transition has struck a nerve with its new rules regarding conflicts of interest. But if the next president really wants to transform the culture of Washington, he’ll go further and close down another revolving door: the ability of top aides to cash in by peddling tales of what they saw.

Scott McLellan and George Stephanopoulos are among the most notorious recent examples of this breed. No amount of money or media acclaim can erase the stain that comes from being a close presidential adviser who chooses to trade confidential conversations for dough while the president is still in office.


In other words, it is time for the political prenuptial. Barack Obama should simply require key advisers and officials to sign a binding contract of confidentiality as a condition of employment. Aides should pledge not to disclose anything they see until, say, five years after their boss leaves office. The legitimate claims of history would thus be honored, along with the rightful expectations of presidents.

It’s a shame, of course, that integrity has to be assured rather than assumed, but the political pre-nup is an idea whose time has come. Hollywood celebrities have required such contracts forever, from every cook, nanny and “personal assistant” they hire. Once President-elect Obama and his transition leaders think about this, they’ll realize that there is no downside to a pre-nup and no shame in insisting on one. It lets the president-elect establish new standards for public service. It offers lawyers an area of public life where they can finally do something constructive. And it would make Barack Obama the first president to enter meetings secure in the knowledge that if any notes his aides are scribbling are destined to appear in print, it will be long after he has left the White House.

As Radley Balko notes the comparison with celebrities is just absurd. A celebrity is not an elected official, nor does a celebrity have access to a nuclear arsenal, millions of troops, and other powers at his disposal that can impact millions of Americans. In short, imagine if Bush had such a policy…the caterwauling from the left would be deafening.

Also, this blog post from the Center for American Progress’ blog is most amusing. Why? Matt Miller works for the Center for American Progress.

Glenn Greenwald however thinks this is a horrible idea,

That is an atrocious idea. For one thing, it’s hard to see how enforcement of these silencing contracts could be permitted in light of the First Amendment. And I doubt that Obama, for appearance reasons if nothing else, would take this proposal seriously. But those matters aside, the thinking behind this proposal is common among Beltway insiders and reveals much about the ways of Washington.

The attribute that defines Beltway culture as much as anything else is obsessive, gratuitous secrecy.


In light of that, it’s staggering that people like Miller, now that there’s a Democratic administration on the horizon, would be plotting and advocating still new presidential powers to further strengthen the wall of secrecy behind which our Government operates. One of the very few reasons that we have learned anything meaningful about what the Bush administration did was because people inside the administration decided, for whatever reasons, to shed light on it, to leak it, and to describe what they saw and heard.

Links via Radley Balko.

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Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    nor does a celebrity have access to a nuclear arsenal, millions of troops, and other powers at his disposal that can impact millions of Americans

    The president’s appointees can command the Chinese military? Our military doesn’t have that many people in uniform and I think the only military that does is the Chinese.

  2. Steve Verdon says:

    Well, my understanding is that there are close to 1.5 million active troops, and well over 1 million reserve troops, 2.5 million.

  3. ken says:

    I am pretty sure we are paying for over a million active duty military personnel. It always struck me as odd that by using only around 10% of them for what they are hired, ie war, for we could be stressing out our military to the breaking point.

    Seems to me that regardless if Steve is right with his numbers or not we have way to big and wasteful a military on our hands anyway you slice it.

  4. James Joyner says:

    For one thing, it’s hard to see how enforcement of these silencing contracts could be permitted in light of the First Amendment.

    I’m befuddled that a Constitutional lawyer doesn’t grasp the basics of constitutional law. Hell, I signed non-disclosure agreements as a lowly defense contractor. Surely, there’s no issue with requiring that people wishing to get political appointments give up to write books for profit for X number of years.

    And, contrary Radley, there would obviously be public policy exceptions that would render it unenforceable against legitimate whistle blowing.

  5. Micky says:

    After that ridiculous questionnaire a pre nup would seem mute