Transition team gets guidelines Clinton announces ethics standards on lobbying

November 14, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Although President-elect Bill Clinton vows to impose stricter ethical standards on government officials, critics of the current standards worry he will not go far enough to limit influence-peddling.

Mr. Clinton took an interim step yesterday, announcing through an aide a set of guidelines that will apply to his transition team. The centerpiece is a requirement that members sign a pledge agreeing not to lobby for six months any agency for which they had planning responsibility during the transition.

"These are by far the strongest, toughest rules ever put forward for a presidential transition," said Warren M. Christopher, transition director. "The era is over when too many in Washington sought to gain in some way from their access to power."

Soon Mr. Clinton will announce rules for appointees to his administration. In his campaign, he promised to require "top appointees" to sign a pledge agreeing not to lobby "government agencies within their responsibilities for five years after leaving office." He also would "require senior officials to pledge never to become registered agents on behalf of any foreign government."

Such rules would represent a significant toughening of present standards, which generally prohibit government lobbying by a former official for only one year, and which do not bar officials from becoming lobbyists for foreign interests.

"Vis-a-vis recent presidents, it is striking, bold and unusual what he is doing," said Charles Lewis, head of the non-profit Center for Public Integrity. "And in terms of worrying about ethics, it is definitely a step in the right direction and exciting to watch."

But "it would be wrong to think all influence-peddling is going to dry up because of these measures," which are "not draconian" and are "riddled with loopholes," he said, basing his criticism on what Mr. Clinton has outlined so far.

He added that the wording of Mr. Clinton's rules would be "critical" in measuring their effectiveness.

Mr. Lewis points out, for example, that barring someone from lobbying his or her old agency for five years would not prevent that individual's firm or law partner from doing so.

And while Mr. Clinton would bar former officials from lobbying their old agencies, nothing he has said suggests the ban would apply to other agencies, Mr. Lewis notes.

But the area where Mr. Clinton's rules may be put to their toughest test is lobbying by former U.S. government officials on behalf of foreign interests. Although Mr. Clinton would prohibit former senior officials from becoming registered agents for a foreign government, his campaign book, "Putting People First," doesn't mention foreign corporations or other foreign organizations.

That is one of the "huge loopholes" in Mr. Clinton's campaign promises concerning ethics, said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who has been fighting for tighter regulation of foreign lobbying, especially in the area of trade. Yesterday, she sent a letter to Mr. Clinton urging him to prohibit "any former federal trade official from lobbying, consulting, aiding or advising any foreign government, corporation, organization, citizen or entity controlled by foreign interests to influence federal legislation or policies."

She would also bar any top appointee or senior presidential aide from "ever serving as a lobbyist before the government" for "any interest, domestic or foreign."

Her proposals are akin to those put forward by independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, whose book, "United We Stand," is tougher on the issue of foreign influence than Mr. Clinton has been. Following in the footsteps of Republican presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, Mr. Perot made an issue of Bush campaign aides who represent foreign clients, calling it "inexcusable."

Mr. Perot would have forbidden anyone on the payroll of a "foreign interest" from working in a congressional or presidential campaign. He also would have prohibited top officials and members of Congress from "accepting one penny for any reason from any foreign interest -- ever."

But any effort to impose stricter standards on lobbying for foreign interests may run into opposition. Howard Marlowe, an official of the American League of Lobbyists, a trade group, said, "I don't know why it should be treated as substantially different from domestic interests."

"We're in a global economy," he said, adding that while it might be appropriate to have a longer ban on foreign-interest lobbying than domestic lobbying, a lifetime prohibition is excessive.

But Mr. Marlowe will be an ally in other reform efforts. He particularly emphasizes the need for more disclosure of activities and political contributions by lobbyists. Current law, drawn up in 1946, has loopholes so large that many lobbyists don't do any reporting.

Full disclosure is on Mr. Clinton's menu for political reform, alongside ethics guidelines for government officials and changes in campaign finance laws.

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