Strange Bedfellow

Washington Swingers

The forgotten ethics problem of the revolving door.

Washington morality is a curious thing. It is capable of focusing on certain kinds of misbehavior with halogenlike intensity for short periods of time. But it’s also highly selective, often preoccupying itself with one modish ethical issue to the exclusion of others that are equally serious. Since the election, everyone has been consumed with outrage over the Clinton campaign-finance scandal and, by extension, over anything related to political fund raising. But no one seems to care any more about influence peddling, a category of sleaze that is equally pervasive, arguably more venal, and much more easily cured.

As cases in point, consider two current examples: Haley Barbour and Alexis Herman. In the Republican Party, no one bats an eyelash when Barbour offers himself as a gun-for-hire, available to lobby congressional leaders to whom he was giving policy advice just a few months ago. And among Democrats, it isn’t considered either surprising or scandalous that the president would nominate as secretary of labor Alexis Herman, the most accomplished swinger through Washington’s revolving doors since the death of her mentor, the late Ron Brown.

Barbour and Herman are about as different in background and temperament as two Beltway insiders can be. He’s a Republican good ol’ boy from Yazoo City, Miss., whose colorful metaphors invariably invoke pigs, dogs, and mules. She grew up on the other side of the Old South’s racial divide, and speaks flavorless corporate English. He likes to be in front of the cameras. She likes to work behind the scenes. But they’re basically in the same business. Both have prospered in Washington by skillfully exploiting the intersection of public policy and private interests.

Let’s take Barbour first. Despite Bob Dole’s defeat, Barbour was considered a great success as chairman of the Republican National Committee, a job he held until last month. Under Barbour’s leadership, Republicans raised $312 million in the 1996 election cycle, a record amount credited with saving the Republican Congress. How did Barbour raise all that money? He did it by being more explicit than ever before about the connection between big contributions and what is euphemistically called “access.” Corporations that gave $250,000 or more became Republican “season-ticket holders,” with regular opportunities to schmooze GOP congressional leaders. They were even assigned special Republican National Committee staff members to help with their problems in Washington. After the election, Barbour scolded members of the Business Roundtable for giving some 30 percent of their donations to Democrats. Without exclusive support, he threatened, Republicans might not prove so effective a conduit for business interests.

I n his new private capacity, Barbour holds out the promise of being a very effective conduit himself. As soon as his term as RNC chairman ended, he returned to his old lobbying-law firm, Barbour Griffith & Rogers, and founded a semidetached “strategic communications” firm with Ed Gillespie. Gillespie, the former chief of staff to House Majority Leader Dick Armey, is best known as the guy who came up with the idea for the Contract With America. As a former House employee, Gillespie is bound by the post-employment restrictions that apply to ex-congressional staff members. But Barbour, who hasn’t worked in government since the Reagan administration, can start lobbying Newt Gingrich and Armey right away. And Gillespie can, of course, give Barbour plenty of advice on how to go about doing so.

The combination of high-powered connections and freedom from legal restraints makes Barbour uniquely valuable to corporations involved in what economists call “rent-seeking.” According to a short item in last week’s Wall Street Journal, Barbour immediately faced a bidding war for his services between the regional phone companies and the long-distance services AT&T and MCI. The regional companies appear to have had deeper pockets–Barbour went with them. Neither Barbour nor Gillespie responded to phone calls, or to a faxed list of questions. But according to the Journal, Barbour will focus on the implementation of the Telecommunications Act, which involves issues relating to how soon the long-distance companies can compete in the local-service market. Consumer groups tend to side with the long-distance companies in their dispute with the regional ones. But whatever the merits of his case are or aren’t, it will be pretty amusing to watch Barbour take sides in a propaganda war after letting everybody know he was available to work for either side on mercenary terms.

When it comes to the revolving door, Alexis Herman is less of a Bigfoot than Barbour but more of an innovator. As head of the Women’s Bureau in the Labor Department during the Carter administration, she helped to write regulations requiring federal contractors to comply with goals and timetables for hiring minorities. After she left the Labor Department, she set up a firm to advise companies on how to comply with those regulations. But that’s not the half of it. According to a recent story in Business Week, when Herman was at Labor, she also helped to steer government job-training grants to a firm she once worked for as well as to a youth-training program run by Jesse Jackson. Jackson, a very close friend of Herman’s, spent much of the 1980s boycotting and threatening boycotts against firms whose minority-hiring practices he deemed inadequate. In most cases, he negotiated settlements with the companies he targeted–settlements that often included a recommendation to hire Herman as a diversity consultant. More recently, Jackson helped Herman by lobbying Clinton to name her and not former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford as secretary of labor.

The press, gripped by Herman’s not-especially-notable part in the Democratic National Committee fund-raising scandal, has largely ignored the many interesting convolutions in her various roles. Herman kept her consulting business going even after she became chief of staff to Ron Brown at the DNC in 1989, a clear conflict of interest. Under one particularly lucrative diversity-consulting contract, which Senate investigators are now looking into, Herman advised Washington developer Herbert Miller on how to comply with minority-hiring guidelines on a project called Market Square. In addition to a $205,000 payment, Herman got an ownership stake in the deal, which is now listed on her financial-disclosure forms as being worth between $500,000 and $1 million. (Miller, a big contributor to the DNC, had coffee with the president last year.) According to Clinton sources, Herman has often lent an inside helping hand to another longtime friend, Washington super-lawyer Vernon Jordan. Jordan’s corporate clients include American Airlines, a very happy company this week. It would be interesting to know what role Herman played in the president’s decision to break the American Airlines pilots’ strike.

I’m not suggesting that any of Herman’s liaising around is illegal. But noncriminality is a pretty low standard for appointment to the Cabinet. It is the standard, however, that the Clinton administration has applied, not only in Herman’s case, but even more notably in the choice of Ron Brown for the post of secretary of commerce. In the case of Republicans, ethical standards are, if anything, lower. During the last Congress, Gingrich rehabilitated convicted felon Michael Deaver as a Republican adviser in good standing, while the Dole campaign brought such notorious sleaze-meisters as Lyn Nofziger, Paul Manafort, Charlie Black, and John Sears back into the fold.

Like campaign finance, revolving-door lobbying is a systemic problem in American politics. The difference is that whereas campaign finance is an immensely complicated problem that can only be fixed with changes in the law, the Augean stables of K Street could be cleaned up pretty easily if anyone cared. All it would take is for a few prominent politicians to stop elevating lobbyists to high office, and to quit taking their calls. It’s a cheap, easy, and effective solution that unfortunately doesn’t fit in with this season’s spasm of morality.