Washington — Michael Deaver is in hot water. But the embarrassments of one former top White House aide, whose lobbying activities have spawned investigations and hearings, are only a symbol of the growing ethical problem of the selling of influence in Washington. Political observers voice concern that:
During the Reagan administration, with its heavy stress on the marketplace and profit-taking and its constant downgrading of government, the trend toward ``revolving door'' influence peddling has intensified.
The American people seem increasingly indifferent to and cynical about the federal government and the questionable ethical behavior of high officials.
As the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings Tuesday on lobbying by former government employees, political analysts pointed out that influence peddling by those who have left public service is nothing new -- either in Democratic or Republican administrations. But the practice has reached a grander scale.
``It's the magnitude of it,'' says John W. Gardner, founder of the private interest group Independent Sector, and a former Cabinet secretary. ``In this administration there's a kind of feeling that nothing bad happens around money. The President, with all his good points, finds it hard to believe that there is such a thing as corruption.''
While many questions need to be sorted out and clarified, it is clear that the Deaver situation is not unique. It reflects a growing pattern of government servants parlaying their inside knowledge and expertise into big-money earnings after they leave office. Many other former Reagan administration officials are now working as consultants and lobbyists, just as have members of past administrations.
Government, in fact, has grown so complex, and so much federal money is being dispensed that the private sector is on the constant lookout for officials who will join private companies and serve as a guide to the bureaucratic labyrinth that is Washington.
The Pentagon ``revolving door'' is notorious. Treasury tax analysts often are ``raided'' by law firms. Top economists in the Congressional Budget Office are being attracted to the private sector. And with the growth of the medical industry and the expansion of public health care, the Department of Human Health and Services has become a target of hiring efforts by private health organizations.
President Reagan has stanchly defended Mr. Deaver, a close friend and former aide. ``Mike has never put the arm on me, or sought anything or any influence from me since he has been out of government,'' he said recently.
But the activities of Deaver, as a highly successful lobbyist, have come in for sharp criticism in the news media and probing by government agencies. The General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, is looking into Deaver's activities as a consultant for the Canadian government on acid rain and other issues. The Office of Government Ethics has referred its inquiry to the Justice Department.
Recently several Democratic senators petitioned Attorney General Edwin Meese III to seek an independent legal counsel to investigate charges of a violation of federal conflict-of-interest laws, a request the President called ``ridiculous.''
Visibly concerned about the mounting criticism, Deaver himself this week asked the Justice Department to name an independent counsel. He said he had tried during and after his service at the White House ``to comply with all of the ethical rules and regulations concerning government employees'' but that ``the climate has become such that this is the only way to resolve the issue fairly.''
Congress, too, is involved. Rep. John D. Dingell (D) of Michigan, who requested the GAO inquiry, is planning to hold hearings within the next two weeks on whether Deaver has been guilty of any wrongdoing and whether changes in the law are needed. A congressional aide stresses that it is not a ``sleaze factor'' which is of concern in the Deaver case, but of self-enrichment after government service.
On the other side of Capitol Hill, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina is proposing legislation placing new restrictions on lobbying by former governments officials. The bill would toughen current laws, requiring, for instance, that for two years after leaving office no former government employee could work for or advise a foreign entity.
``The senator's view is that you come [into government] to serve the country not to line your pockets,'' a committee aide says.
Deaver resigned as President Reagan's closest personal adviser in the spring of 1985 and formed his own consulting firm, which quickly garnered lucrative contracts. Today the firm represents Canada, South Korea, Singapore, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, as well as a number of private companies.
Among the questions raised about Deaver's activities is whether he influenced the White House to reach an agreement on combating acid rain. Deaver has said that he has not talked with anyone in the administration about the issue since leaving the White House. But according to press accounts, he discussed the issue last October with the President's special envoy on acid rain.
Under current law, a federal employee is prohibited from lobbying his former agency for one year after leaving the government. The law also places a two-year ban on lobbying on issues an employee dealt with while in government.
Other charges turn on Deaver's lobbying efforts for a South Korean company and the Rockwell International Corporation. In a report to the Justice Department, Deaver said he represented a Korean corporation at a meeting with an official of the National Security Council five months after he left office.
Some analysts suggest that private influence peddling often achieves limited results and that its importance in policymaking is exaggerated. Dr. Gardner, a longtime observer of government, takes issue.
``It's not a con game,'' he comments. ``These corporations are not dumb. They are looking for very specific things -- a fraction of a mill in a tax rate, for instance. They know perfectly well if their man in Washington has gotten it.''
What troubles many observers is that outrage about ethical lapses in Washington is an intermittent phenomenon. After a series of disclosures, the public becomes aroused, presses for reforms, and the latest ``mess'' is cleaned up. Then the public tends to doze off again, until awakened by a new cycle of ethical relapse.
``We are kind of sleepwalking at the moment,'' says Gardner. But, he suggests, the public does things in its own season and will come around to questioning current practices and seeking change.
John Shannon, director of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, says he detects a ``sea change'' in public attitudes about the federal government. In the old days, he says, federal officials enjoyed a certain esteem outside Washington, and idealistic young people flocked here to take up government service. But the situation has markedly changed, he says, in part because of presidential attitudes.
``Carter and Reagan both ran against the federal government and contributed to an antigovernment atmosphere,'' says Dr. Shannon. ``In today's milieu it is easy to exit government and cash in on the knowledge you pick up.''
One reason for the rise in the marketing of influence, is the fact that some people in government feel they are not paid enough. Many officials in the Reagan White House have left to increase their earnings.
``They don't make a lot of money,'' says William Schneider, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute. ``Politics and government don't pay and everyone working there knows they could be earning more in private enterprise.''
First of two articles on government ethics.