Does a 'revolving door' still spin at White House?

November 25, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Last year, while running for president, Bill Clinton vowed to stop the capital's "revolving door" in which ex-government officials cash in on their connections for cushy jobs as lobbyists for private business interests.

Today, however, after less than a year in office, White House deputy chief of staff Roy M. Neel is leaving the White House and weighing offers for executive-level jobs in the telecommunications industry, including one that pays $500,000 to head a telephone industry trade association that lobbies Congress.

White House officials were quick to point out that Mr. Neel has extensive expertise in telecommunications issues from his longtime tenure as a top legislative aide to Vice President Al Gore. And they insisted Mr. Neel is a straight-shooter who would not use his White House contacts for private gain.

Nevertheless, his decision to leave the White House for a high-paying job that includes overseeing industry lobbying efforts came under fire from good-government advocates.

"This just adds to the appearance that public service is a stepping stone into high-paid lobbying," said Andrew Silow-Carroll, director of public affairs for Public Citizen. "That revolving door keeps spinning and spinning."

Reached last night, Mr. Neel said that he wouldn't personally engage in lobbying and that his motives for leaving the administration were not primarily financial.

"I've missed six straight birthdays," said Mr. Neel in reference to his three sons, ages 13, 9 and 8. "I used to coach them in baseball. That was when we worked under the more civilized pace of the Senate. You don't whine about the hours, but when you're ready to leave, you do it."

Mr. Neel also said he was a little surprised by the attention his departure has generated but said he has no quarrel with those raising the revolving door issue.

"I understand the concern of public watchdog groups who'd like to see the public ethics laws pushed several steps further," he said. "I have no problem with that."

'92 campaign issue

The issue of the revolving door was ever-present during the 1992 presidential campaign. It was raised first, and most often, by Texas independent Ross Perot, who lambasted Congress and the Bush administration for what he saw as an insidious pattern.

Too often, Mr. Perot said, officials were leaving the government to work at exorbitant salaries for industries they once regulated. Sometimes, they even went to work for foreign governments or foreign corporations.

The Clinton campaign picked up on this theme, too, promising to stop the "revolving door."

During his transition, the Clinton team designed unprecedented rules requiring 1,100 top administration appointees to sign a pledge not to lobby the agencies they worked in for five years -- four longer than the law requires -- after leaving the government.

In addition, Clinton trade officials agreed not to work for foreign corporations for five years, and all his appointees signed a pledge never to work for a foreign government or foreign political party.

But Mr. Clinton's White House turns out to be a difficult and stressful place to work, and already some top staffers are starting to leave. And upon leaving they are finding what many ex-White House officials have before them: Their ticket has been punched for life.

Roy Neel was making $125,000 at the White House -- an amount that turns out to be far, far less than his market value. As president of the U.S. Telephone Association, a trade association and lobbying entity for the local and regional telephone companies, he could earn $500,000 a year.

Mr. Neel said last night that the president of a large trade association typically wouldn't lobby, although part of his duties would be overseeing a government-affairs section.

D8 But the salary in question raised a lot of eyebrows.

Profitable connections

"If somebody is being paid far in excess of what a normal person would get with his background, then it's because of who they know," said Martin C. Anderson, a Hoover Institution fellow and former Reagan administration domestic policy adviser.

Mr. Silow-Carroll was even more blunt: "His worth [to the U.S. Telephone Association] is based on access he was able to obtain as deputy White House chief of staff."

Mr. Neel, a 48-year-old Tennessean, was Mr. Gore's chief legislative assistant in the House of Representatives from 1977 to 1984 and later served as his top aide in the Senate, where Mr. Gore developed an expertise in telecommunications policy.

Mark Gearan, White House communications director, noted Mr. Neel's extensive experience in telecommunications issues and suggested that Mr. Neel was being hired for what he knows, not whom.

In any event, Mr. Gearan added, the president and other high-ranking White House officials were confident that Mr. Neel would adhere to both the law and the Clinton administration's ethics rules. If he goes to work for the telephone trade group, he would be prohibited from lobbying the White House for five years but could attempt to influence his old friends on Capitol Hill.

Heightened sensitivity

Earlier this week, when White House congressional liaison Howard Paster announced his departure, he wouldn't say where he was going -- but he assured reporters it wouldn't be controversial.

"I don't know, but I can assure you I will not be a lobbyist," Mr. Paster said. "I don't want anybody in this room or anybody on Capitol Hill in the [press] gallery six months from now to write a story that says that Paster is lobbying on this issue on which he worked in the administration. That story will not get written."

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