WASHINGTON — REPUBLICANS on Capitol Hill are all too used to being out of power. But during the 1980s, they also got used to working with a friendly administration to stymie the schemes of majority Democrats. Now for the first time in 12 years, congressional Republicans have to go it alone.
Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, the Senate minority leader, and Rep. Bob Michel (R) of Illinois, his counterpart in the House of Representatives, have responded to the situation by setting up a "shadow government" - but in the process they may have opened a hornet's nest of ethics questions.
In February, the Hill Republicans created 14 "issues groups," each led by a Reagan-Bush administration veteran and staffed with roughly a dozen policy experts drawn from think tanks, law offices, businesses, and interest groups.
Among other tasks, the groups have prepared questions that Republican senators have used in confirmation hearings for Clinton appointees and have analyzed the new president's plan for an energy tax.
Sheila Burke, Senator Dole's chief of staff, says the "shadow government" is necessary because, "When you don't have the administration behind you, you lose a lot of resources in terms of policy analysis and the development of legislation."
But the shadow government's launch has been marred by a shroud of secrecy that Republican leaders have cast around its operations. Both Dole's and Mr. Michel's offices have refused to release the names of the "issue group" members.
The lack of accountability by these semiofficial advisers to GOP congressmen has fostered some conflict-of-interest concerns among ethics watchdogs.
"There is a potential for a conflict of interest," Ms. Burke concedes. However, she says, the potential is limited because the group members are "not responsible for drafting amendments" and because those on the Hill who work with the issues groups know which clients the group members represent.
But the case of one issues group whose leader has been disclosed by the publication Congress Daily suggests that the ethics problems may be very real. Robert Lighthizer, a former Dole staff member and deputy United States Trade Representative in the Reagan administration, heads the trade policy group.
He is also a partner at the Washington office of the giant law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, where he represents domestic steel producers who have a stake in limiting competition by foreign competitors.
Mr. Lighthizer says that "something I'm involved in, I won't advise on at all." But he seems a little hazy about what his fellow group members are involved in. He says he does not know, for example, whether any of the trade group members are registered as lobbyists on behalf of foreign governments.
Lighthizer says the secrecy around the group's operations is not meant to hide conflicts of interest. Rather, he views the anonymity as a way to prevent publicity-seekers from participating in the "issue groups" only to advance their own careers.
"I don't want this to degenerate into people thinking they'll get benefits out of this," he says. "The function of this is not to promote yourself. You're promoting ideas and responding to members' questions."