`Revolving Door' Standard Raises Tough Issues for Administration

Skeptical voters see moves as way to `cash in' on government service

YESTERDAY was the last day at the White House for Howard Paster, the chief lobbyist, and Roy Neel, the deputy chief of staff responsible for many of the staff operations.

Both are taking high-paying jobs running organizations that - among other things - lobby the federal government.

So what's wrong with that?

It might not be an issue if Bill Clinton had not spoken so sweepingly in the campaign about ``stopping the revolving door'' of government officials becoming lobbyists.

As he promised in the campaign, Mr. Clinton issued an executive order expanding the rules limiting the lobbying activities of former government officials. Mr. Paster and Mr. Neel are now barred from discussing business with their White House colleagues for five years, and they are barred for life from representing a foreign interest.

Paster, in his new role as chairman of Hill and Knowlton Worldwide, has said that he will be prevented from even sitting in meetings with foreign clients of the public-relations firm.

Neel, as head of the United States Telephone Association, will restrict his lobbying of the federal government to Congress.

Those limits are not enough for many voters represented by Ross Perot's United We Stand organization. ``We think it's absolutely criminal,'' says the group's spokesperson Sharon Holman. Moving from government official to lobbyist, she says, ``is akin to switching sides in the middle of a war.'' Perot supporters, who remain a substantial segment of the electorate, are among the most distrustful of government and the most concerned about the ``revolving door'' of officials who, as Ms. Holman puts it, ``cash in on government connections.'' Mr. Perot has expressed concern that the Clinton executive order has no penalties to enforce its rules.

There is little doubt that White House experience is worth money in the private sector - especially if one leaves with the glow of success. ``Clearly you take with you the aura of service in the White House,'' says Bradley Patterson, who served on the Eisenhower and Ford staffs. ``You can't divorce yourself from that.''

Some hold the minority view that burnishing one's earning power in public service is itself wrong, a form of using the public's trust for private gain.

A more widely held concern is that former officials will use their personal connections to gain unfair influence for their clients, warping public decisions for their private interests.

Even people considered ethical purists on these issues, as Mr. Patterson is among students of public administration, do not regard Paster or Neel as abusing their government connections - as long as they abide by the current rules.

One way around these limitations might be for officials-turned-lobbyists to simply have associates call on White House staffers, exercising connections and inside knowledge indirectly.

One of Washington's most eminent lobbyists for decades now, Robert Gray of Gray & Co., says the power of these personal connections is highly overrated. Even though private industry frequently hires lobbyists based on their contacts in high places, says Mr. Gray, who served in the Eisenhower White House, the real basis of a lobbyist's clout is in the marshalling of facts and arguments.

``I think they often hire the right people for the wrong reasons,'' he says.

Having a best friend in Congress will not gain a vote for a lobbyist who does not make a strong case, he says. Likewise, a good case will gain a vote from a personal enemy.

Another concern is that former officials carry inside knowledge about policies under development that can benefit their clients or employers. If either Paster or Neel have such knowledge of White House business, says Joseph Pika, a scholar of White House staffing at the University of Delaware, it will be out of date within a month or two.

Still another purpose of regulating the revolving door involves how public officials behave while still in office. The rules should reassure reasonable citizens who cannot know the motives of officials that they are not angling for a private job while in office, says Dennis Thompson, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Boosting one's earning power by performing well at high levels is legitimate, Mr. Pika says. Winning favor by serving special interests is not.

The balancing act that government must play in regulating the career paths of its officials is that overly broad rules could keep good people out of government. Already, some Defense Department posts are difficult to fill because senior managers do not want to be barred from careers in the defense industry by ethics rules.

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