Congress Moves to Tighten US Regulations on Lobbyists the Voters' Ire Grows against Former Officials Who Cash in on Their Government Experience

By John Dillin, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 16, 1993 | Go to article overview

Congress Moves to Tighten US Regulations on Lobbyists the Voters' Ire Grows against Former Officials Who Cash in on Their Government Experience


John Dillin, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


ROUND and round and round and round it goes - the "revolving door" that turns well-paid government officials into very-well-paid private lobbyists.

Everyone in Washington knows how it works: One day an official will be negotiating a trade deal. A month later, he'll be collecting a fat paycheck as an "adviser" to another nation, which exports billions of dollars of goods to the United States.

Reformers seethe when they look at the record:

* In 1986, the staff director of a US Senate committee resigned. Two months later, the director was working as a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia.

* In 1988, a special assistant to President Bush stepped down. The same month, the official became a lobbyist for South Korea.

* In 1989, a senior US trade official left office. Three months later, he was a registered foreign agent for Indonesia.

Using their personal contacts, trading on inside information, spreading around campaign money, and manipulating the system for their clients, officials-turned-lobbyists are widely scorned. They've drawn the wrath of everyone from President Clinton to the head of Common Cause, a watchdog group.

Lobbyists for other countries and foreign corporations are a particular target of Ross Perot. Next Sunday, in a paid nationwide telecast on NBC, one of the questions he will ask in a phone-in referendum will be: "Should we eliminate foreign lobbyists completely - no loopholes - and make it a criminal offense?"

Analysts suspect most Americans will answer, "Yes."

Congress has tried to slow the revolving door. It passed the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 that targeted ex-employees of the government, including former members of Congress.

The act barred congressmen from lobbying on Capitol Hill for one year after leaving office. It put a similar one-year ban on many executive branch employees. Lifetime bans were placed on federal employees on matters in which they were "personally and substantially involved" while in office.

Still, many on Capitol Hill, feeling heat from voters back home, say that more must be done. The 1989 act too often misses its mark, according to critics like Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona.

Three Senate bills now are working their way through Congress in a further effort to lessen the power of lobbyists. Fines for those who violate the laws could run as high as $250,000 for each count. Would chop pensions

One of the bills, the "Responsible Government Act of 1993," sponsored by Senator DeConcini, calls for officials who violate lobbying rules to lose their federal pension benefits.

All this raises cries of alarm from some government officials. F. Gary Davis, general counsel of the Office of Government Ethics, complains that some of the proposals are too harsh.

"The criminal law should not be used to enforce ethics standards" unless a violation "poses a serious threat to the conduct of good government," he told a recent Senate hearing.

Mr. Davis says that the bills would make it harder to recruit qualified employees.

But Senator McCain says: "This revolving door has been a major factor in the public's losing faith and trust in its government."

Charles Lewis, chairman of the Center for Public Integrity, a reform group, says: "Lobbyists ... have become in Washington what investment bankers became in the '80s in New York. There are huge sums of money to be made, and few real controls."

Mr. Lewis says the area of international trade was particularly lucrative for revolving-door officials in the late 1970s and 1980s. …

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