Ending the conflict-of-interest triangle

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CONGRESS is going through one of its periodic upsets over the conflict of interest represented by military officers going to work for defense contractors after leaving the service. Maybe this year Congress will even do something about it. The proposal most often advanced is to bar -- for a given period -- contractors from hiring officers and Pentagon civilian employees whom they had dealt with. That would be a good thing to do, but experience teaches that applause should be withheld until the ban is in the law.

If Congress is really serious about this problem, there are some indirect actions it could take to reinforce whatever it might do directly.

The origin of the problem is in the inherently incestuous relations between the military and industry. Those relations are going to exist as long as we have a defense establishment and a defense industry. The problem of controlling them is a function of size. Given the frenetic increase in defense spending in the last four years, it is not surprising that the problem has become worse.

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Nor is the problem simply a bilateral question involving the Pentagon and the contractors. Congress itself is involved, thereby setting up a triangular relationship. Members of Congress find it difficult to resist the blandishments of the defense industry. Perhaps the crucial factor in the squeaky victory of the MX was a showing of how many jobs it provided in particular states and congressional districts and how much government money it brought to those states and districts.

Also contributing to the problem is the military retirement system, which allows an officer to retire on half pay after 20 years' service without ever having contributed a dime. Maintaining this valuable fringe benefit is becoming prohibitively expensive, but Budget Director David Stockman was sternly admonished when he suggested it was one place to save money. The retirement system was begun in its present form as an aid to recruitment. The incentive it provides for early retirement was also once thought to be an advantage, because this made room for younger officers to move up. The problem now, however, is not recruitment so much as it is retention, and that becomes more important as the skills needed to run a modern military establishment become more complicated.

The 20-year feature means that a person is ready to retire in his 40s, just the age when anywhere else he would be reaching his peak performance. And a defense contractor, perhaps one whose contract he has been administering, is waiting to greet him when he takes off his uniform. The government loses its expensive investment in the officer's training, and the contractor gets it.

Finally, as Congress struggles to close the revolving door, it should also look at itself. Washington is full of former members of Congress and former congressional staff in law or public-relations or consulting firms. Congressional staff tends to migrate to the executive branch, especially when administrations change.

The modern Congress dates from the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, which for the first time provided Congress with its own professional staffs to be hired and fired solely on the basis of merit and without regard to partisan political considerations.

The act envisaged the congressional staff as a career service. In the Senate version, there was even a provision barring any professional staff member of Congress from working for the executive branch for five years after leaving his congresional job. This was dropped in the House and did not become law.

In nearly 40 years, the principles of the 1946 act have been severely eroded, and one of the more mischievous of these erosions has been the loss of the sense of a career service on Capitol Hill. It is unrealistic to think of your job as a career when it is dependent on the next election. But even before the Republican landslide of 1980 introduced a new and large element of insecurity in congressional employment, a new generation of staff members was thinking of their jobs not as careers but as steppingstones to something else. (And who could blame them, when so many senators were thinking of the Senate not as a career but as a steppingstone to the presidency?)

The practice of moving back and forth between the executive and legislative branches of the government (or between the Pentagon and defense industry, for that matter) is not uniformly or necessarily bad. Several examples come to mind in which it has served the public interest. The crucial factor is intent.

So far as Congress is concerned, the danger arises when a new professional employee comes to work on the Hill with the longer-range objective of becoming an assistant secretary, or an ambassador, or a partner in a Washington law firm or public-relations firm. He does his job with one eye on his congressional employer and the other on the Cabinet department or law firm he hopes will become his employer. This is a clear conflict of interest.

It probably cannot be solved by passing a law, but it could certainly be eased if members of Congress took it into account in hiring new staff.

Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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