An ethics code for the 'influence business'

Washington lobbyists are often portrayed as expensively tailored miscreants, fond of questionable campaign donations and the three-hour lunch.

A lobbyists' code of ethics may thus seem a contradiction in terms. But a lobbyists' lobby has just set preliminary standards of conduct for the profession - a first step in the group's campaign to give lobbying the respectability of fields such as accounting, dentistry, or law.

There are currently about 5,500 lobbyists registered with Congress, representing interest groups from Hawaiian sugar planters to the City of Akron, Ohio. Their offices fill the glass-and-concrete Rubik's cubes that line Connecticut Avenue and K Street, north of the White House.

Many lobbyists once roamed the halls of Capitol Hill as congressional staffers or elected officials. Many are lawyers. Their causes range from tax breaks for corporations to funds for Southwest senior-citizen centers.

A negative image of their profession ''is ingrained in American culture,'' says Norman Ornstein, a political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

But a lobby for lobbyists is trying to upgrade that image. The American League of Lobbyists (ALL), a trade group founded in 1979, is seeking to make lobbying ''a truly creditable profession,'' in the words of Roland Ouellette, a General Motors Washington representative who serves as president of the league.

Only about 300 seekers-of-influence have joined the group. But the ALL membership list includes some legendary figures such as Charls E. Walker, a corporate representative who had a major role in drafting the 1980 tax cut, and Thomas H. Boggs Jr., the son of a former majority leader of the House.

Lobbying, ALL officials say, is a profession without an identity, lacking educational standards, an accreditation process, or official standards of conduct.

So at their Nov. 17 annual convention here in the Mayflower Hotel, league members tried on for size some trappings of a full-fledged profession by approving a preliminary code of ethics. For the most part, the ethics code consists of innocuous generalities, exhorting members to observe ''high standards of integrity'' and uphold ''sound business practices.''

But the code's first provision, which requires lobbyists to ''place the public's interest above all others,'' including loyalty to employers and clients , sparked heated debate. Some ALL members felt the section was needlessly pious.

''The minute any employee of mine signed that, I'd fire him on the spot,'' snorted the head of a corporate lobbying office.

''James Madison would probably have raised some objections to that (provision),'' agrees Dr. Ornstein, ''It's just not the way the real world works.''

After being assured the provision's wording could still be changed, the convention voted 24 to 14 to approve the code of ethics. Eventually, says William Chasey, chairman of ALL's ethics committee, the one-page document will blossom into a quasi-legal standard of conduct for lobbyists.

For the code to be effective, however, it needs some enforcement teeth. But the fledgling league isn't yet powerful enough to scare wayward members. ''Right now we don't have sufficient numbers to make expulsion a sufficient threat,'' one ALL official sighs.

One reason for adopting the self-regulatory code, ALL officials tell their members, is to discourage the federal government from stepping in and doing the job on its own. Lobbyists are now required to register and list general expenses by a 36-year-old law, which has resulted in only four prosecutions so far.

''The law, as it currently is, is nothing,'' says John Swanner, director of standards of official conduct in the US House.

Occasional attempts were made in the '70s to pass legislation requiring lobbyists to disclose more fully who they work for and where they spend money. None came within striking distance of passage.

Those who have backed lobby reform in the past say the ALL's code of ethics doesn't address a key concern: tracking where lobbyists' money comes from, and where it goes.

The ethics code is ''a fairly meaningless pledge,'' says Nancy Drabble of Congress Watch. ''There's nothing about tracing the funds spent on grass-roots (constituent) lobbying. It's an enormous gap in current law.''

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