Last Year, He Called It a 'Betrayal of Democracy'

December 20, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- The rural counties of western Oklahoma's 6th )) Congressional District have lost lots of population since the dust bowl days of the 1930s and soon will lose another person. Their congressman, Glenn English, is retiring, not at the end of his term, but in a hurry, in January, to become head of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. It is headquartered here, near where it tills and reaps so successfully, on Capitol Hill.

Elected in 1974, after Watergate, Mr. English was part of the bumper crop of freshman Democrats who vowed to usher in a reign of virtue.

The Rural Electrification Administration, which today subsidizes with cheap loans the cooperatives that are the members of the NRECA, was established during the New Deal to facilitate electrification of the countryside. Then only 10 percent of America's farms had electricity. By the 1950s, 90 percent had it. The problem has long since been solved, but the ''solution'' rolls right on. Today some of the subsidized power goes to places like suburban Atlanta, Aspen, Colorado, and Hilton Head, South Carolina.

This year President Clinton proposed substantially limiting the REA's subsidies. However, Mr. English is chairman of the subcommittee that protects the REA. He largely beat back the challenge, helped by the member co-ops of the NRECA, which contributed $714,930 to congressional candidates in the 1992 elections, Mr. English says he began negotiating with the NRECA less than three weeks after the House finished re-authorizing the REA. Given the timing, the congressman and the NRECA were courting while collaborating.

So Mr. English is passing through the revolving door that connects the public sector with private-sector institutions that are parasitic off the public sector. This will not distress President Clinton. He says, ''I don't think we should discourage people from moving in and out of government.'' He made that laconic comment when defending two of his senior aides who are leaping from the White House into greener pastures.

Howard Paster, head of White House congressional liaison, will make about $1 million in Washington with Hill & Knowlton, the public-relations and lobbying firm. Roy Neel, Mr. Clinton's deputy chief of staff, will be paid about $500,000 by the United States Telephone Association in Washington.

Candidate Clinton said: ''During the 1980s . . . high-level executive-branch employees traded in their government jobs for chance to make millions lobbying their former bosses. . . . This betrayal of democracy must stop. . . . We must stop the revolving door.'' With Messrs. Paster and Neel leaving after less than a year, the door has rarely revolved so rapidly. Under Mr. Clinton's rules, solemnly announced earlier this year, Messrs. Paster and Neel cannot immediately lobby, but they can supervise lobbying.

When Republicans spun in the revolving door in the 1980s, Democrats waxed sociological about the era and moral about motives -- the ''decade of greed'' and all that. But cupidity left town last January 20 when the party of compassion took control, so now Dee Dee Myers, President Clinton's spokeswoman, is deploying the fallacy of the false alternative on behalf of Messrs. Paster and Neel: ''You can't expect that people in government will never have another job.''

''I,'' says Mr. Clinton, ''don't think we should have a permanent government and a permanent private sector . . . across the divide from each other.'' Fear not, Mr. President, the divide hardly exists.

Of course the president, who has hardly been out of government as an adult, opposes the real solvent of permanent government -- term limits. About 40 percent of the 121 senators and congressmen who left office last year have joined the Washington influence industry. Term limits would swiftly devalue such people by steadily rotating their contacts -- their old colleagues in Congress -- out of Congress.

One reason for occasionally having Democratic administrations is the fun of watching the hypocrisy rise hip deep, and hearing the moral principles get tempered by compassion for those who once professed them but who now would be inconvenienced by them.

One of the president's closest confidants insists that his principles concerning the revolving door are ''infinitely better than we had before.'' So says George Stephanopoulos, White House savant and former student of theology, who has an interesting notion of infinity.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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