Revolving door woes

washington's well-oiled revolving door is whirring smoothly these days. Seasoned Republican apparatchiks are rotating back into government, replacing ousted Democrats who have spun off to new pursuits as lawyer-lobbyists, speakers on the lecture circuit or peddlers of kiss-and-tell memoirs.

For many, going to work for President Bush meant moving just a few blocks. White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr., for example, moved from the nearby government affairs offices of General Motors Corp., and Bush's liaison to Capitol Hill, Nicholas E. Calio, jumped a like distance from the boutique lobbying firm of O'Brien, Calio. Similarly, defeated Republican Senate candidates Spencer Abraham and John Ashcroft whisked across town to Bush Cabinet posts without missing a paycheck.

Moving in the opposite direction, former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, previously a nine-term Democratic congressman from Kansas, joined the influential Washington law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, which had briefly lent the services of a senior adviser, former Rep. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y., to supervise Bush's departmental transition teams. Another capital powerhouse, the law firm of Covington & Burling, landed outgoing Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart E. Eizenstat.

Notwithstanding the ease with which the well-connected in Washington switch jobs as election results dictate, there are worries that Bush-and future Presidents-may have trouble recruiting candidates to fill lesser assignments that lack the prestige of a West Wing office or a Cabinet Secretary's title. The problem, many experts say, is that financial disclosure and other requirements, adopted in the name of ethics reform, have become unnecessarily onerous.

The news media's appetite for detecting scandal is another turn-off. "Because of so many stories, proven or unproven, we've come to think that people who enter government service are knaves or fools, or proably both" lamented Lloyd N. Cutler, counsel to two Democratic presidents. And, with so many jobs now requiring Senate confirmation, it is all but impossible to properly vet all the candidates, Cutler said during a recent panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

Cutler, who recalls that he once wrote an article for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch entitled "Two Cheers for the Revolving Door," stresses the value to a President of having experienced advisers armed with knowledge gained during past tours of government service. "We have people who have gone through two, three and four reiterations, rising higher and higher in the political hierarchy, who have never done anything that anyone has called into question," Cutler says.

C. Boyden Gray, counsel to the first President Bush and now a law partner of Cutler's, opines that shifting back and forth between the public and private sectors is becoming more difficult. He complains, in particular, that accusations of ethics violations have become "the weapon of choice" in Washington's infighting, with unsubstantiated charges "played out in the newspapers in a most unfair way." Gray argues that financial disclosure rules are unduly invasive, citing instances in which acquaintances have turned down government service to avoid notoriety about their wealth.

But a top White House ethics cop, Associate Presidential Counsel Robert "Moose" Cobb, insists that the hurdles can be surmounted. "If a person wants to come in, we are going to be able to work it out," Cobb argues, citing his experiences over the past nine years as a career attorney with the Office of Government Ethics. "I have never seen a candidate, or a nominee, for a position excluded by virtue of any financial attachment he or she brought to the table," Cobb says.

Government Ethics Director Amy L. Comstock recalls only one time that a financial conflict could not be resolved, but quickly adds that the medicine is sometimes painful. When a case is resolved at great financial loss to a candidate, she says, "you've got [an] unhappy customer there-and with good reason."

A forthcoming Office of Government Ethics report to Congress will suggest reforms intended, among other things, to guard against the inappropriate use of ethics rules and to update financial divestiture requirements to take into account compensation schemes that include stock options. Comstock expressed hope that the recommendations would not be seen as backpedaling on ethics rules.

But American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein, who is spearheading a project to break down barriers to good governance, warns that it will be difficult to overcome the culture of cynicism that pervades Washington. "Anytime we move to make a change," he says, "there will be a cacophony out there saying, 'this is an outrage.'"

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