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?"

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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.

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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 issues

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