Ethics law snares Yeutter Congress ponders change

March 27, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- If Republican National Chairman Clayton K. Yeutter gets an idea next week about tax breaks, he probably won't tell the treasury secretary.

Doing so could land him in prison.

In fact, the GOP chairman and former secretary of agriculture can't talk with his old buddies in the Bush Cabinet about policy matters for the rest of this year.

Mr. Yeutter is the latest prominent Republican to become enmeshed in federal ethics laws designed to slow the "revolving door" through which government officials frequently move into high-paying jobs as lobbyists.

The new provisions, which took effect this year, forbid former Cabinet members from attempting to influence their old colleagues in government for 12 months after leaving office. And White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray has interpreted those restrictions to apply to former officials who take jobs at Republican Party headquarters.

The Bush administration is working with Congress to try to change the law, on the grounds that an exception should have been made for political parties when ethics laws were toughened as part of the 1989 congressional pay raise.

"We all agree it's something that has to be fixed," said Representative Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Law and Government Relations.

Mr. Frank would also exempt from "revolving door" restrictions those who leave government to work in presidential or congressional campaigns.

The House may take up the matter next month, he said, along with another change that would permit federal employees to earn outside income for speeches and free-lance articles unrelated to their work, fees now banned under the same 1989 law.

In the meantime, the White House is drawing up a list of do's and don'ts for Mr. Yeutter in his dealings with the Bush administration.

For example, the GOP chairman has been told he can take up policy matters with President Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle and Chief of Staff John H. Sununu but not with Cabinet secretaries or their underlings.

Since violations of the ethics law are punishable by up to two years in prison and $250,000 in fines, it isn't surprising that Mr. Yeutter has taken the precaution of having an aide witness his meetings with senior government officials in case someone decides to raise a question later about what was said.

Mr. Yeutter is the second straight Bush pick for GOP chairman to run afoul of tough new ethics rules. Late last year, former drug policy director William J. Bennett agreed to succeed the ailing Lee Atwater as head of the Republican National Committee, only to renege when it appeared that the ethics laws might restrict his outside earnings from books and speeches.

E. Spencer Abraham, who recently left a top position on Mr. Quayle's staff to become co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, is another of those covered by the "revolving door" restrictions.

Top administration officials who go to work in the 1992 Bush re-election committee could also be subject to the restrictions.

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