Clinton's Tough Ethics Guidelines Could Hinder Hiring, Critics Say
WASHINGTON — TAKING a cue from the voters - especially those who pulled the lever for Ross Perot - President-elect Clinton has issued a strong signal that he intends to change "business as usual" in Washington.
On Friday, transition officials announced the strictest ethics guidelines yet for participation in a presidential transition. Mr. Clinton will come out later with tightened rules for those serving in his administration.
The aim is to slow down Washington's infamous "revolving door," in which former federal officials use government experience for private-sector gain. Citizens' watchdog groups called the announcement a positive step toward transforming the system.
Other observers expressed concern that the rules will make it more difficult to attract top-notch professionals into public service. They called the rules vague and unenforceable.
But on balance, says Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, the rules are right for now. "I think the crisis in confidence - when a third-party candidate gets 19 percent of the vote - in Washington and government is so serious that I would rather have a crisis when you can't fill the positions because you're too tenacious and too tough than where it is now, with the cynicism."
The rules include: a ban on lobbying federal agencies for which a transition official had "substantial responsibility," effective until six months after inauguration; a permanent ban on using nonpublic information for private gain; a ban on involvement in transition issues that conflict with one's company or its financial interests. Officials also must disclose their finances. Bush did not ban lobbying
In the 1988 Bush transition, which also instituted new ethics guidelines, there was no ban on post-transition lobbying.
More important, ethics experts say, are the tougher rules coming for administration officials. The new president is expected to extend the current one-year ban prohibiting former senior officials from lobbying their former agencies to five years.
G. Calvin Mackenzie, chairman of the government department at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and author of studies on government recruitment, fears that the stricter rules will make hiring good people more difficult.
The problem, he says, is with the way the law is perceived, and how it adds to other impediments to coming to Washington, which in some fields could include a substantial cut in salary. Financial-disclosure requirements and Federal Bureau of Investigation checks are other disincentives.
The current law rarely prevents someone from going back to a company after government service, but it still has a chilling effect, especially among scientists, Professor Mackenzie says.
One year into the Bush administration, half the 600 "important policymaking positions" had not been filled, Mackenzie says.
In hiring an undersecretary of defense for acquisitions, the White House offered the job to 24 people before finding someone. Government-ethics specialists counter that this was a special case, considering the Pentagon's procurement scandals.
"Historically, there's a balancing act that any administration faces," says Mark Abramson, president of the Council for Excellence in Government. "One has to weigh the ability to attract the best people and not penalize them for their expertise (against) the belief that people should not trade on government service."
Many ethicists speak of a need for changing attitudes about what public service means. "It has become a large steppingstone to greater income and influence, rather than an obligation of citizenship," says Gary Edwards, president of the Ethics Resource Center.
Still, despite Clinton's tough talk about cracking down on influence-peddling, it has not been lost on many observers that some of the best in the business are now among his closest advisers. Clinton has had repeatedly to defend his choice of Vernon Jordan, the lawyer-lobbyist chairing the transition and a board member (now on leave) of RJR Nabisco, a major tobacco and food company. Foreign agent named
On Thursday, Clinton named Samuel Berger his top national-security adviser for the transition team. Mr. Berger is a registered foreign agent whose firm has represented Japan and other overseas interests, and who shares in the firm's earnings from these clients, according to documents filed with the Justice Department.
Transition director Warren Christopher had expressed doubt on Friday that the transition team would include any foreign agents.
"He doesn't want to be ineffectual like Jimmy Carter, so he wants to rely on these kind of folks.... He wants to talk a good game and really seem sincere and care about ethics. Therefore, you have a policy that is less than comprehensive, that has a certain cosmetic ring to it that appeals to the masses," Mr. Lewis says.
But, he and other ethics observers agree, Clinton's current approach is better than ignoring the issue altogether.