Setting limits for lobbyists

LONG-simmering concern about the role of lobbyists in the US political process appears about to boil over into legislation. And concern about the activities of Michael K. Deaver, the former White House deputy chief of staff (and Reagan intimate), appears likely to spark a Justice Department investigation. A majority of Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee has asked Attorney General Edwin Meese to consider appointing a special prosecutor to investigate whether Mr. Deaver has violated federal conflict-of-interest laws.

The senators have identified four troublesome areas of Deaver lobbying: for the Canadian government on the acid rain issue; for Rockwell International in connection with the B-1 bomber; for Puerto Rico to preserve the commonwealth's tax breaks; and for South Korean interests.

Such an investigation is clearly appropriate, especially since the issue is not only actual deeds but appearances, including that of violating public trust.

Mr. Deaver is barred by law from lobbying anyone in the White House for a year after his departure (in May 1985), and -- for two years -- from lobbying any government agency on an issue in which he had substantial involvement as a public servant.

It is to be hoped that, given the longtime California connection between Meese and Deaver, the attorney general will name an independent prosecutor, rather than investigate the matter himself, as the law would allow.

Both houses of Congress are considering bills to increase the restrictions on former officials who turn lobbyist, especially those who represent foreign governments or corporations.

The Deaver case has certainly focused public attention on the lobbyist issue. But the members of Congress seeking to restrict foreign lobbyists, specifically, are motivated more by trade concerns. Time and again, they charge, US trade negotiators face foreign counterparts who know the American position in advance -- because they are being advised by a former US official who was privy to that position and who indeed may have helped formulate that position.

Despite all we read about the United States as a land of opportunity for all comers, there remains an element of isolationism within this giant nation. In many cases, foreign manufacturers are clobbering US producers in their own domestic marketplace, and many worry that foreigners are ``taking over'' the US -- buying American skyscrapers and hotels and department stores.

Hence, representing foreign interests may be seen as at least questionable, and in the case of a US government official, perhaps even disloyal.

Then there's the problem of the lobbying itself. Lobbying is not unalloyed evil. Lobbyists articulate the concerns of their constituencies and help define public debate on issues. They are part of the way things get done.

But nobody gets elected to be a lobbyist, and there remains concern that lobbyists somehow short-circuit the processes of government by being right there at the elbows of Congress to plead the case of the rich and the few.

The recent high visibility of former high officials peddling that glorious intangible, ``access,'' and making their $100,000 golden phone calls, has not helped their case. Just what, one wonders, can anyone say into a telephone that's worth $100,000?

The abuses of the system need to be curbed. Of the elements of various bills pending, we welcome the concept of the Wolpe-Kaptur bill's 10-year ban on representation of foreign principals by certain high officials (Cabinet members and their first deputies, and others of similar rank) after they leave office -- though the duration of the ban may be open to debate. There may, however, be a few particularly sensitive positions -- director of Central Intelligence, for one -- for which a longer ban might be in order.

On the domestic lobbying side, greater consistency is needed. Current bans, which keep former government officials from lobbying in their former jurisdictions for a year, should be expanded to keep officials out of government lobbies altogether for at least a year after they leave office.

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