Clinton and the Revolving Door

December 14, 1992

Candidate Bill Clinton attacked "the revolving door in Washington." He vowed to do something about the way special interests hired executive branch officials for their contacts and insider knowledge. Often these ex-officials came from the private sector and returned to it, where they were paid to subordinate the public interest to the private interest.

Like previous administrations, the Bush administration imposed some rules regarding what ex-officials could do and when they could do it. But now President-elect Clinton has gone a good way beyond existing rules. He has announced he will impose on his appointees and some careerists a five-year ban on lobbying their own agencies after they leave office. There will be a lifetime ban on lobbying for foreign political parties and governments.

That will be helpful in the crucial area of trade. Its harshness is no doubt due to Ross Perot's tough talk about lobbyists for foreign governments moving back and forth between political and governmental jobs on the one hand and lucrative lobbying for foreign clients on the other. Mr. Perot hasn't commented on the Clinton rules yet to our knowledge, but we have a concern here -- and expect he will, too. Foreign corporations are not covered. Given the relationship between some foreign governments and corporations, this is a big enough loophole to fly an airbus through.

No analysis of last month's voting suggests that the ethical situation in Washington was a decisive issue. The economy and the debt were the issues, and nothing else was even close. But millions of Americans rightly believe that part of the explanation for the government's failure to control spending and the deficit is the undue influence of special interests lobbyists who learned on the inside how to manipulate policy from the outside.

Cleaning up Washington's image will have more benefits than just avoiding a little influence peddling. The public's lack of LTC respect for Washington weakens government in many ways. That there is such lack of respect is seen in every sampling of public opinion. A Harris Poll last summer showed only 29 percent of the public rated "the moral and ethical standards" of "members of the Bush administration" as "excellent or good." Mr. Clinton's new rules, if they are vigorously enforced and if the public can see results in general interest policies, should help raise that figure for his administration.

The new anti-revolving door guidelines do not apply to Congress. But if any branch of government has an ethical image problem, it is Congress. That same Harris Poll showed that only 19 percent of the public rated the morals and ethics of members of Congress excellent or good. President Clinton ought to propose changes in the Ethics in Government Act that will keep former lawmakers -- at least senior ones -- out of the revolving door, too. And Congress ought to enact such changes.

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