The Private Use of Public Life

Last December, a public interest group called the Center for Public Integrity published a unique analysis of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), titled "America's Frontline Trade Officials."* The center used a wide variety of government documents, newsletters, press clips, directories, and other sources to piece together the career paths of mid-level and senior USTR officials. It found that roughly half of recent senior officials subsequently worked as agents of foreign firms or governments. The fraction that left USTR to pursue careers representing other private interests was over 80 percent.

Those with major foreign clients included former trade ambassadors of both parties, including Democrat Robert Strauss, whose law firm has represented the People's Republic of China, Fujitsu, and many others, and Republican William Brock, a long-time paid advocate for Toyota. Deputy Trade Representative Julius Katz was simultaneously a paid consultant to USTR and to French, German, Japanese, British, and Canadian clients with trade policy concerns. Deputy Representative Harald Malmgren's clients have included Korean, Peruvian, and Japanese firms as well as the Japanese External Trade Organization (JETRO).

The story about key trade officials working for foreign interests has been told before in Pat Choate's book Agents of Influence and in New Republic articles by David Osborne and John Judis. What is new about the center's report is the documentation of a pattern that pervades the entire agency. It isn't just top-ranking officials who put in time at USTR and then represent companies such as Toyota and Toshiba. The more startling finding is that this revolving door is virtually the normal career pattern. For example, the 24 top ranking officials who left USTR during the 1980s served there an average of just 3.27 years, down from just under five years for officials who left during the 1970s. One very senior career official whom I have interviewed on several occasions, Geza Fekatekuty, stands out as an almost unique exception to the norm. Fekatekuty, a highly regarded Hungarian-born civil servant, has unaccountably decided to stay at USTR for his entire career, where he is now senior policy adviser, although he could doubtless cash in his knowledge and double or treble his income tomorrow.

Charles Lewis, the former television producer who founded the Center for Public Integrity and wrote much of the report, draws the obvious inference: 'In any other nation, such a revolving door to foreign lobbying would be a national scan-dal....Why do so many of our country's best and brightest men and women in trade want to help our country's economic adversaries? What is it about the state of public service in trade that has caused USTR to become almost a training academy for foreign lobbyists?"

* * *

Those are certainly good questions. But the issue raised by the USTR story is not just "integrity" or "conflict of interest" or the implication of national betrayal. The more fundamental issue is the drain on the basic competence of government. While USTR is perhaps unusual in that its particular revolving door involves foreign policy and is thus suggestive of selling out the country -- people do not lawfully quit the CIA to go to work for the KGB -- the pattern is widespread and equally disturbing among domestic agencies as well. The sad fact is that a great many people in purely domestic agencies see public service less as a career than as a career path. A bright lawyer who puts in a few years at the antitrust division of the Justice Department, or the Federal Communications Commission, or any agency involved with regulation, tops out at a salary in the high five figures. A middling lawyer or consultant who switches sides to advise corporate clients can earn three or four times that.

And while the easy conclusion is indignation at the personal conflict of interest or the sellout of one's country, there is a related, more complex conclusion about the cumulative degradation of public service and of government. When the normal pattern is a few years in government to learn the ropes and make the contacts, followed by a lucrative career sharing those trade secrets with private clients seeking to influence that agency, it sends a signal to those who follow. The signal is that public service is not a calling but a pit stop. The signal is that the civil servant who actually makes a career of government service is either a slow learner -- or a chump.

* * *

Public service as a commitment, very much in fashion during John Kennedy's New Frontier, is quite out of fashion today. In an era when the icons are entrepreneurial, government is seen as merely a necessary evil. A government career, therefore, is the slow track, for bureaucratic souls who value security and predictability over enterprise. However, our country pays a price for this attitude, not just in "corruption" but in the cost to the institutional memory of public agencies that serve as temporary flags of convenience for these swashbuckling privateers.

As Daniel Tarullo suggested in these pages, a weak or incompetent government is unlikely to be entrusted with the complex social brokering of thorny issuesbrokering whose alternative is endless and costly private litigation. In this issue of TAP, Peter Kahn notes that social contention and government by special interest do not disappear when activist government is foreclosed as a remedy; they simply reappear in the courts, where tort law produces remedies that are often more onerous to business and less protective of the public than the alternative of public regulation. Indeed, it is no accident that nations with more effective governments also have far less litigious societies. Even business, normally the natural adversary of assertive government, pays a price when government lacks the coherence to do its job well.

The U.S. trade negotiators at the important Uruguay Round, from Ambassador Carla Hills on down, were nearly all novices, who had never negotiated a trade round before. Their predecessors from prior rounds, almost to a man and woman, had moved on to work representing private clients -- and in some cases other nations -- taking the institutional memory (purchased at U.S. taxpayer expense) with them. At USTR, Mr. Fekatekuty is one of the few people who remembers how essentially similar trade issues played out when they arose in the 1970s; what the Japanese promised but did not deliver in the Tokyo Round, or the market-opening talks of the early 1980s; why the Europeans refuse to dismantle their farm price supports, and the other minutiae of trade negotiations. On the other side of the negotiating table are old hands, from the European Community, or Japan's MITI, or the third world -- professional specialists in trade negotiation who have been on the case for decades. And not surprisingly, they eat our lunch.

The report implicitly praises the handful of former trade officials who have gone on to lucrative careers serving domestic rather than foreign private interests. But this is small comfort; the distinction misses the larger point. The problem is not that the U.S. semiconductor producers (ably represented by former Deputy Trade Representative Alan W. Wolff) are the good guys, while Japanese semiconductor makers are bad guys. If s that, over time, a public agency charged with making absolutely crucial policy decisions is left quite bereft of its best people. And though USTR highlights the conflict of interest problem most dramatically -- there is not quite the same inference of treason when the agency is, say, the Food and Drug Administration -- the domestic revolving door does lead to precisely the same betrayal of the national interest. It also leads to a decline in the quality of public service that only reinfects the public cynicism about government.

* * *

What is the remedy? We need to restore public service as a respectable and respected career. Unfortunately, the same populist indignation at people who use public service as a way station en route to private reward sometimes manifests itself in a puritan demand that a public career must entail private sacrifice. Ralph Nader, for one, long a crusader against conflicts of interests in government, is of the view that people who work for government should share something of his own spartan life style.

Nader's particular ire is directed at the U.S. Congress. In addition to its other sins, however, Congress has a long-standing custom of keeping senior civil service salaries pegged to its own. By restricting the congressional pay raise, populist protest also limited pay increases for senior executives of the civil service. Certainly, we need sticks as well as carrots, including much tighter conflict-of-interest standards, that would make it virtually impossible for government officials to switch sides abruptly and enrich themselves by selling to private clients knowledge they had gained working for agencies like USTR. A five-year waiting period on any legal or consulting work, direct or indirect, related to the former government agency of ex-public officials, would probably be a good deterrent. It would then make sense to increase the salaries of public servants, on the assumption that more of them would stay put.

In every other major industrial democracy, public service is viewed as a life-long commitment and an honored career. Americans have trouble with this ideal because of our aversion to statism. Yet, if we bother to reflect on the point, we should realize that the threat to our liberties is less from overweening bureaucrats than from incompetent ones.

In his elegant 1990 book, The Democratic Wish, political scientist James Morone takes stock of the price Americans pay for our long-standing ambivalence about government. "The democratic wish," he writes "begins as a story of weak government: Americans declared their independence against 'swarms of officers' and remain wary of state power two centuries later." Occasionally, Morone notes, populist frustration at the consequences of weak government achieves reform, but the reform is typically piecemeal and authority remains fragmented. However, as long as government remains weak and fragmented, problems that only government can solve remain neglected -- which only fuels popular frustration. In this context, advocates of activist policies to address long-deferred needs, whether national health insurance, welfare reform, industrial policy, or economic regulation, risk the scorn of a citizenry that has seen weak government close up, and regards it with appropriate contempt.

* * *

Reviving public service, of course, is not the only place to interrupt this vicious circle. We need to rein-vigorate democratic politics as well as government. But civil service reform is one logical point of attack.

The 1989 Report of the National Commission on Public Service, chaired by Paul Volcker, was strikingly at odds with the prevailing ideological view of government. It explicitly eschewed an attack on "big government" and focused on the practical issues of how to improve the quality of public agencies. Indeed, despite its eminently establishmentarian coloration, it was a fairly explicit, if gently worded, repudiation of the view that government is at the root of our national ills. Rather, the commission proposed an agenda to rebuild public trust in government, and called on the President and his lieutenants to "articulate early and often the necessary and honorable role that public servants play in the democratic process."

On the tricky issue of pay, the commission proposed separating congressional from civil service salaries and called for greater flexibility in setting the compensation of senior public servants. The report quoted Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, who asserted that during the past decade the National Institutes of Health had "not been able to recruit a single senior research scientist from the private or academic sectors to engage in the independent conduct of a clinical or basic biomedical research program."

As the Volcker commission noted, salaries are only part of what it will take to rebuild an ethic of public service and a cadre of talented and dedicated public servants. It is noteworthy that as genuinely conservative a figure as Paul Volcker could decide that the repair of government is an enterprise worth pursuing. Conservatives as well as liberals ought to recognize that government-bashing, however politically expedient, has real costs to the society. Conservatives seem to appreciate that, nearly everywhere but in America.

It is hardly a surprise that the revolving door accelerated under the presidencies of Messrs. Reagan and Bush, for the cynical view of public service as nothing more than a temporary tactic of private enrichment perfectly reflects the prevailing conservative cynicism about government. Yet it is also odd that after more than a decade of mismanagement, neglect, and ridicule of the public sector by conservatives, whose own conduct in office set an extraordinarily low standard, the flaws in government are still hung around the necks of liberals.

If liberals wish to reclaim either the presidency, or the activist use of government, we need to champion an efficient, competent public sector. We also need to place the blame where it belongs -- on the conservative cynics who have run the government into the ground for the past decade, offering role models for in-place privatization.

Undoing that harm, however, presents a tricky politics. For one thing, it is difficult to channel populist indignation over crude corruption into a more subtle repair effort, whose details are often dry and technocratic. Michael Dukakis, for one, failed spectacularly at that necessary synthesis, by emphasizing technical fixes in a technician's style that drained the political juices needed to animate the process. Alternatively, it is too easy to become indignant solely at the overt corruption of individuals without extending that critique to the corruption of government itself. By all means, let us be irate at the petty larceny of public servants feathering private nests on taxpayer time. But let's also recognize the broader theft of our public institutions.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement