Congress tackles ethics reform. Bill would limit lobbying by former `insiders'

Lawmakers are on the ethical warpath. In the wake of the controversy surrounding former White House aide Michael Deaver, Republicans and Democrats are seeking reform of the law governing the lobbying activities of former federal employees.

Leading the charge in the Senate is Strom Thurmond, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Legislation proposed by the conservative Republican from South Carolina would appreciably tighten the Ethics in Government Act of 1978.

The proposed bill is controversial and has drawn criticism from the Reagan administration. But many members of Congress think the legislation provides a good basis for further reform of the system. The bill would:

Prohibit all former federal employees, including members of Congress, from lobbying the government for one year after leaving office. Current law bans lobbying only of the agency for which the employee worked.

Bar all former employees from representing a foreign government or corporation for two years. The present law has no such restriction.

Prohibit former high federal officials, such as Cabinet secretaries and top White House aides, from ever representing foreign clients.

Given this tough approach, it is unlikely the bill will emerge unscathed. But, in light of support for the legislation shown in a hearing this week, the committee will probably pass it, says Mark Goodin, press secretary to Senator Thurmond.

``It will be like a snowball going down the hill,'' says Mr. Goodin. ``It may not stay intact. But it's a starting place for a dialogue.''

Reform is also percolating in the House of Representatives. Rep. John D. Dingell (D) of Michigan, who requested a General Accounting Office investigation of the Deaver matter, plans to hold hearings on the issue of influence peddling.

The Reagan administration backs some reform of the law but opposes the Thurmond bill as too sweeping. David Martin, director of the Office of Government Ethics, told the committee the law should be tightened but not so as to stifle the ``legitimate career aspirations'' of most government employees.

The most controversial aspect of the proposed bill is the lifetime ban affecting top officials. Administration officials suggest that this raises a constitutional issue of freedom of expression and association. Senator Thurmond argues that high officials are not like average employees; they are privy to extraordinary information that may be valid for many years and therefore former officials should not be able to capitalize on it.

Another administration concern is how to attract people into government if post-government employment is so hedged about with restrictions. Senator Thurmond sees this as the crux of the issue, however, arguing that people should go into governmnent to serve the public not to lay the groundwork for future financial gain.

``If you're coming into government service with the expectation that you'll trade it down the line,'' says Goodin, ``I'm not sure the government wants you.''

But Congressman Dingell, too, has doubts about a sweeping ban on the ``revolving door,'' the practice of moving from business into government and then back into business. The concern is that such a ban may make it even more difficult to lure qualified people into government.

At issue in the debate sparked by Mr. Deaver's high-level contacts with government officials on behalf of foreign clients is not the existence of lobbies themselves or their legitimate activities. Lobbies are a part of the democratic process. Aside from the more publicized groups that represent big-business clients are thousands of citizen and public-interest groups that have grown more professional over the years and often play a positive role in combating abuses in various areas.

But the lobbies which represent moneyed interests tend to have more clout. ``There's an imbalance in the voices heard in decision-making,'' says Michael Pertschuk, codirector of the public-interest group Advocacy Institute and former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. ``Money and privilege have always talked, but the network of relationships today seems to be exploited more cynically. The problem is worse than it was.''

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