Washington — The Reagan administration is signaling support for congressional efforts to beef up federal ethics laws. The man giving the signal is Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III. ``It's not unhealthy for the Congress to take a look at the adequacy of laws'' covering lobbying by former federal officials, Secretary Baker said Wednesday.
Baker made his remarks at a time when an old colleague, former White House deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver, is under investigation by Congress for lobbying activities for foreign countries.
He added that a lifetime ban on lobbying for foreign governments would be ``overreaching'' and suggested instead a ``decent interval'' of as much as five years. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina has proposed a lifetime ban on lobbying for foreign nations by former high-ranking officials.
At a breakfast with reporters, Baker said ``appearances are important. It's important not only to avoid improprieties but to likewise avoid the appearance of improprieties.''
On Tuesday a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals said it would name a special counsel to investigate Mr. Deaver's lobbying activities. The US Justice Department had requested the appointment. Deaver, the Office of Government Ethics, and five Democratic senators had requested the department to act.
Deaver denies charges he violated conflict-of-interest laws in building a multimillion-dollar lobbying practice. Known for his ability to skillfully package events for the news media, Deaver is a longtime friend of President and Mrs. Reagan. Before leaving the White House last May, he was deputy chief of staff.
On economic issues, Baker:
Said, ``I don't see any threat'' that the US dollar's decline will trigger an uptick in inflation. Some private economists are predicting such a result. He added that ``we ought to continue to be vigilant against inflation.''
Predicted US trade figures will begin improving ``sometime this fall.'' He sees protectionist pressure in Congress continuing through the balance of the current session. If a measure like the House-passed trade bill were to clear Congress, ``we'll lose the world free-trading system.''
Reaffirmed plans by Senate Republican leaders and the administration to move the Senate Finance Committee's tax bill as a package not subject to substantive changes until it reaches a House-Senate conference committee. ``The minute you start fiddling with this part or that part, you are pulling on a thread that is likely to unravel the whole,'' he said. The tax bill is slated to come to the Senate floor for debate June 4.
Reported that work continues on the international economic coordination plan unveiled at the Tokyo summit. But major action should not be expected before the Sept. 30 annual meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Asserted, ``I am not worried at all,'' that a decline in the dollar's value will make it difficult to sell US government debt to foreign investors. Investors still want the stable, secure home for funds that US securities represent, Baker said.
In discussing the Deaver case, Baker noted that Washington tends to judge people ``guilty before they are found to be so.'' He said he had ``great sympathy for people who are undergoing that ordeal.''
After commenting on the need to avoid the appearance of impropriety, Baker added that ``if the President says he hasn't been embarrassed, I've got to tell you that's good enough for me.''
But the former White House chief of staff also carefully distanced himself from Deaver's allegedly improper lobbying activities. Baker said he had taken steps since coming to the Treasury Department to ensure that former officials do not have improper access. He cited, as an example, 28 calls to the Treasury from Deaver's firm, ``none of which I took.'' The calls, which five Democratic senators have requested be investigated by the special counsel, were on behalf of Daewoo Corporation, a South Korean concern.
While denying that former associates get preferential treatment, Baker admitted that requests for return phone calls from old colleagues ``might very well'' go to the top of the pile. ``Human nature being what it is, if you know somebody, you are more likely to respond to them than to somebody you don't know.''
As for what corporate clients get in return for fees to well-connected lobbyists, Baker's judgment is ``not much.''