New ethics code won't change some practices ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

December 10, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton's tough new ethics code is welcome recognition that too many ranking government officials have been trading on their public service to enrich themselves in private life. But it won't repeal the fundamental laws of politics.

The Clinton code prohibits 1,100 appointees from lobbying their former agencies for five years and from lobbying for foreign governments at any time. That should put a damper on those ex-officials profiting from retainers of $500,000 a year or more from big interests, domestic or foreign, from the day they leave the government.

And it should have enormous appeal to those erstwhile supporters of Ross Perot who responded so enthusiastically to his complaints about "foreign lobbyists" serving as advisers to President Bush during the election campaign.

But the first rule in Washington is who you know is more important than what you know, and there is no reason to believe we can expect some general amnesia to affect those who pass through the Clinton administration in the next four or eight years.

It also would be naive to believe that direct lobbying is the only way a former official, appointed or elected, can profit from his or her public service. To use the most obvious example, there is always a strong market for a former congressman or staff expert in law firms that regularly do business with the government.

There is nothing particularly sinister in this. A law firm heavily involved in tax questions, for example, would be foolish not to sign on a former member of the House Ways and Means Committee who helped write the tax laws with which they are dealing every day. The same may be even more true of the staff attorney who did the nitty-gritty of dealing with the intricacies of those laws and regulations. And that new partner can be immensely valuable without doing any lobbying at all.

There is also great potential for profit from the public service of those who have nothing to sell other than their prominence. Somehow top White House officials seem to end up with private jobs that pay them salaries far beyond what they might have earned before they joined the government. The so-called power restaurants of Washington are packed every lunch hour with the ex-this and ex-that whose positions in the political community rest almost entirely on the job they once held.

Some of those who profit most from the who-you-know rule are political consultants who perform as lobbyists, for both foreign and domestic interests, because they can sell the contacts they made as advisers to senators or congressmen during election campaigns. There is the clear memory of one leading consultant telling a reporter the morning after the Republicans won the Senate in 1980, "All of a sudden I've got a lot of committee chairmen who are friends of mine. I'm going into the lobbying business."

One critical question about the ethics code is whether it might deter otherwise well-qualified people from taking important jobs in the Clinton government. Announcing the plan in Little Rock, Clinton adviser Warren Christopher said he knew of no such case, and he is probably right in assuming there will be few.

Those who get the very top jobs -- in the Cabinet and sub-Cabinet levels -- are far more likely to be interested in the chance to play a leading part in an enterprise as exciting as a new administration than in how it pays off later. Many of them are people who are already successful enough so their financial security is assured. The private market value of a Lloyd Bentsen was established long ago.

And many of the others among the 1,100 who will be covered are younger people interested in careers in government and politics who believe their jobs will lead either to better ones with more influence within the government or to a chance at elective office back home. Serving as assistant secretary of agriculture may be small potatoes in Washington but it can be a valuable credential running for the House in Iowa.

The fact that Bill Clinton can't stop influence-peddling is not a valid reason for sneering at his code of ethics. It is important for a president to set a tone for his administration.

But it would be asking too much to expect any president to repeal the fundamental laws of politics.

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