WASHINGTON — FROM Gary Hart to congressional salaries to John Tower, the ethical standards of public figures have been in the spotlight for more than a year. Today the light intensifies. President Bush and members of his Presidential Ethics Commission plan to discuss the commission's recommendations for stiffer ethics requirements for government employees, especially members of Congress. Eventually, presidential proposals are expected that could result in new ethics laws for the federal government.
Where and when the changes will stop no one knows. Whether Congress will pass tougher ethics legislation this year is questionable, since this is not an election year. Last fall, with one eye on the voters, Congress approved an ethics measure President Reagan refused to sign. House Democrats now plan to reintroduce it.
Subtle changes in public attitudes favoring stiffer ethical standards for politicians make elected officials feel ``they're standing on shifting sands,'' says Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics.
The nearly uniform fear among politicos is that sometime in the future they will be grilled for behavior not widely considered unethical when it occurred. The still-vivid example is former Senator John Tower, whose nomination to be secretary of defense was rejected last week by the Senate. Senators criticized Mr. Tower for his lucrative consulting work (though it was legal) on behalf of defense contractors, as well as his past drinking habits.
Under such scrutiny, three competing views of ethical standards now are emerging for politicians, Mr. Josephson says: do what's right, do what's expedient, or do what people expect. It's not apparent which will become the dominant standard: ``But they all are moving in one direction'' - toward stricter ethics.
Still, there's plenty of room for improvement, the presidential commission implies. Its report recommends ending much of the special treatment Congress has historically accorded itself on ethics. Congress, heretofore, has applied stiffer standards to judges and administration officials than to itself. Josephson and others applaud this recognition of ``the need to make whatever policies are adopted more uniform.''
For instance, the report proposes a congressional ethics office similar to that in the executive branch.
But such proposals have come in for immediate brickbats (as happened last Friday when the commission's report became public) because the commission did not recommend strengthening the revolving-door prohibitions for administration officials. At the same time, it recommended only a one-year ban restricting former members of Congress from lobbying their colleagues. This latter is a ``weaker provision ... than that which Congress passed for itself'' last year, notes Ann McBride, senior vice-president of Common Cause.
One key commission proposal is not likely to get far this year. If passed by Congress, it would ban honoraria for members of Congress just as these payments are currently banned for members of the judicial and executive branches. In return for speaking to industry groups, many members of Congress now legally collect thousands of dollars a year from industries and organizations that have legislative issues before Congress.
For weeks, congressional leaders have said no prospect exists for a ban on honoraria this year, unless Congress gets a pay raise. Yet a pay hike is unlikely, following public protests that squelched an earlier pay raise proposal.
Former US Attorney General Griffin Bell says the best way to judge success or failure of the commission is to note whether Congress passes stiffer ethics laws - and whether Mr. Bush issues a new order on ethics.
``I think [the report] is very tough,'' Mr. Bell says. ``The test of it is - will it be adopted?''