Suitability of Lobbyists For Top Jobs at Issue

In Senate confirmation hearings, the work of several Cabinet nominees as representatives for companies, a foreign government raises questions

DO lawyer/lobbyists sometimes make the best public officials?

The question is relevant as the United States Senate begins examining President-elect Clinton's nominees for his Cabinet, and digs into the backgrounds of lobbyists who will soon hold some of Washington's most powerful positions.

Several of Mr. Clinton's Cabinet choices are lawyers with extensive lobbying experience. Ron Brown, his designate for secretary of commerce, has walked the halls of Congress as a lawyer/lobbyist for a number of clients. One of them was the nation of Haiti, when it was ruled by the dictatorial regime of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier.

Zoe Baird, the designate for attorney general, has worked on legal issues for General Electric and Aetna Life & Casualty Company. Critics worry about her efforts to restrict product liability.

Mickey Kantor, the choice for US trade representative, has served as a lobbyist for some of the nation's largest corporations. He is a partner in the law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Phillips, and Kantor.

Bruce Babbitt, another lawyer/lobbyist, incites concerns among businessmen and private-property-rights advocates as he prepares to take over as the next secretary of the interior. He has served as president of the League of Conservation Voters.

Senators examining Mr. Brown and the other nominees are hesitant to criticize lobbyists. But they know that lobbying for powerful special interests, particularly foreign governments and companies, is distasteful to many voters.

Nations like Japan and China annually spend millions of dollars in Washington to influence trade policies. Lobbyists with inside connections in Congress and the White House often get rich fronting for such governments.

Yet Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon spoke for a number of lawmakers when he reminded the audience during Brown's hearing on Wednesday that to petition the government for redress of grievances, as lobbyists do, is a First Amendment right. "No one should be punished for it," he said.

Even so, during the first round of confirmation hearings, Brown found himself defending his work for Duvalier's government, which he said improved its human rights record because of his prodding. Brown told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation that he was proud of his work for Haiti, which he described as "a poor, black country." Brown told Haitian leaders that the only way to establish better relations with the US was "to change their act" when it came to human rights.

"Considerable progress was made," he said, until finally Duvalier fled the country in 1986.

Brown, who will resign his partnership in this city's largest lobbying firm, Patton, Boggs, and Blow, on Jan. 20, says he sees no conflict of interest in being a secretary of commerce who once lobbied for Haiti as well as several foreign-owned firms.

Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, however, worried that Brown's lobbying "raises the appearance" of a potential conflict. It "perhaps sends the wrong message," he told Brown. That is particularly so because the secretary is responsible for promoting the interests of American business in other nations.

Brown disagreed. His experience working with American subsidiaries of Japanese-owned companies will make him a better secretary of commerce, he told the senators. He "learned from the other side" during his years of lobbying, Brown said.

Interest in Brown's lobbying work nearly overshadowed other parts of his testimony, in which he told senators of his plans for the Department of Commerce.

He vowed to be "tough and aggressive" in trade relations with other nations. Brown favors free trade, but he said it must also be fair trade.

Brown sees the future of US business in biotechnology and other high-tech fields. He would make the Commerce Department the center of that effort in government. His goal would be to make sure US scientific achievements are turned into products that can be sold commercially.

Brown would also bring together students, scholars, and others by creating electronic superhighways for information from repositories like the Library of Congress.

All this will help the US move away from military technology - the main area of government research during the cold war - to civilian technology, Brown said.

Brown emphasized to the senators that he would be aggressive and pragmatic in his efforts to expand the American economy. "Action, not ideology, will be my watchword," he promised.

One senator observed that when Brown sells his law partnership, he will be paid more than $1 million. Even with all that cash in his pocket, however, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina told Brown that after 12 years of wealthy Republicans at the helm of the department, "You're still the poorest who's ever appeared before us for secretary of commerce."

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