Metamorphosing 'Influence Peddlers'

GEORGE F. WILL

December 31, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- The embryonic Clinton administration is already illustrating a paradox: Sometimes a par- ty's irresponsibility is a reason for giving it responsibility. Thus the 1992 election may do for Democrats what the 1952 election did for Republicans -- force them to temper their righteousness.

By 1952, Republicans, losers of five consecutive presidential elections, were, with Joe McCarthy and others in Congress, demonstrating that prolonged absence from executive power tends to corrupt a party. The Eisenhower presidency soon made congressional Republicans more circumspect.

Soon now Democratic responsibility for the executive branch may make congressional Democrats less judgmental and accusatory.

Many of the people whom candidate Clinton excoriated as ''influence peddlers'' -- Washington lawyer-lobbyists -- are being hired by president-elect Clinton. A Clinton aide is referring to them soothingly as ''implementers.'' Mr. Clinton, the candidate of ''change,'' has changed the nomenclature.

We are now told that these ''implementers'' are crucial to Mr. Clinton's promise to break governmental ''gridlock.'' They know how to get things done around here.

A lawyer-lobbyist (Vernon Jordan) is running the transition; another (Ron Brown) will be Commerce secretary; a third (Mickey Kantor) will be trade representative. And these three are just the best-known of the many of their breed now burrowing into the administration. But worry not.

A Washington Post news story reports that this is not merely acceptable, it is desirable.

This page-one headline -- ''Scorned During Campaign, Lobbyists Now Seem Essential'' -- is followed by this headline over the inside ''jump'' portion of the story: ''Lobbyists Bring Expertise to Transition Team.'' Try to imagine similar headlines describing similar uses of ''influence peddlers'' -- sorry, ''implementers'' -- by a Republican transition, a transition that was, say, using someone who lobbies for airlines and local transit authorities to organize the Transportation Department, as Mr. Clinton's transition is doing.

The Post's story focuses on ''superlobbyist Howard Paster.'' Before joining Mr. Clinton's transition (and presumably joining Mr. Clinton's administration, as liaison with Congress) he was manager of the Washington office of what the Post calls the ''public-relations and lobbying giant Hill and Knowlton, whose clients span most of corporate America.'' The Post serenely reports: ''No administration can get things done without people like Paster.'' An equally serene academic, wielding in Mr. Clinton's defense the fallacy of the false alternative, says, ''You don't want a government made up of clerics and academics.''

The Post reports that in the last 12 barren years the lash of harsh necessity drove many Democrats into lobbying. They had few other opportunities ''to work in public policy. . . . One thing political refugees could do was lobby party members in Congress, and many joined firms or founded their own.'' It was, of course, unthinkable that they could seek employment beyond the Beltway, out in what is known as America -- perhaps in provincial governments or, in particularly desperate cases, in the private sector, producing something other than influence.

Washington's sternest ethicists may moralize about Mr. Clinton's embrace of the ''implementers'' -- although most of the ethicists are Democrats and are too busy just now for their usual bouts of indignation. But the fact that Mr. Clinton's team is drinking so deeply of Washington's political culture is neither surprising nor entirely dismaying. It was predictable and may be sobering.

It was predictable because the Democratic Party favors broadly interventionist government. Intervention in economic and social relations does not merely propitiate interest groups, it creates them. Some organize to defend benefits sometimes bestowed without having been requested. This is supply-side government, whereby government supplies a program, thereby increasing the supply of groups making demands.

Interest groups, drawn to Washington like iron filings to a magnet, resist revitalizing federalism by devolving responsibilities to states. Such devolution would inconvenience interest groups. They prefer ''one-stop shopping'' (the phrase is from Michael Horowitz of the Manhattan Institute) in Washington to shopping in 50 capitals.

The infusion of so many of these suddenly (since Election Day) rehabilitated former ''influence-peddlers'' (now ''implementers'') into the new administration merely reflects this fact: The Democratic Party is devoted to implementing the agenda of interest groups. And the infusion may have the agreeable effect of dampening Democratic sanctimony -- about ''greed'' (as in ''the decade of''), ''corporate America'' (the grasping nature of), ''conflicts of interest'' (a.k.a. ''sleaze'').

And that may be just part of power's chastening effects on Democrats. In 1993 the mere existence of a Democratic administration may give Congress second thoughts about reviving the expired independent-counsel law.

Does Mr. Clinton really want to live by Lawrence Walsh's standard that withholding information from Congress is tantamount to lying? Does a Democratic Congress want to feel obliged to scrutinize all statements made by fellow Democrats in the executive branch in order to enforce such a standard?

The embrace of ''implementers'' (Messrs. Jordan, Brown, Paster, al.) who represent what Mr. Clinton until recently called ''entrenched power and money'' in Washington may not be pretty. But it may presage an abatement of his party's unattractive righteousness which recently has become inversely propor- tioned to its executive responsibilities.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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