WASHINGTON -- A new federal ethics law prevents a National Security Agency employee in Pasadena from writing about the outdoors and a Central American affairs specialist from covering professional hockey in their spare time.
The two are among thousands of federal workers who are barred from receiving writing or speaking fees for activities unrelated to their work, part of a sweeping Ethics Reform Act that took effect Jan. 1.
"We overreached. We overreacted. We went far beyond what we needed to do," acknowledged Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.-5th, who joined yesterday with Representative Constance A. Morella, R-Md.-8th, in pushing legislation that would exempt most public employees from the new law.
Mrs. Morella's bill would lift the honorarium ban for federal career employees for speeches, appearances, articles and other writing unrelated to their publicly paid jobs. The measure would retain the so-called honorarium ban for congressmen and non-career federal employees who make more than $72,000. A similar measure has been introduced in the U.S. Senate.
"I know of federal employees who continue to write despite the new ban but who are putting publication of their work on 'hold' until this issue is resolved," Mrs. Morella told the House Judiciary's Subcommittee on Administrative and Governmental Relations.
Robert M. Tobias, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told the subcommittee that even before the honorarium ban, federal workers were prevented from engaging in any activities that would even raise the appearance of a conflict of interest. But with the new law, he said, "federal workers became subject to harsh penalties for pursuing many innocent hobbies for which they might normally receive payments."
Stephen D. Potts, director of the Office of Government Ethics, which will oversee the new law, testified that the law should be modified to allow fees for outside interests.
Robert N. Spore, an NSA budget officer from Pasadena, believes the new law would bar him from writing free-lance articles about the outdoors for The Sun. Mr. Spore, together with the NTEU and the American Civil Liberties Union, joined in a federal suit to prevent the government from enforcing the honorarium ban. The case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.
One Bethesda federal employee told Mrs. Morella in a letter that the new law "takes away our basic freedom to use our talents and pursue our interests. . . . I love my job, but I took up writing about hockey to get some balance in my life."