WASHINGTON -- President-elect Bill Clinton is playing smart politics by setting tough ethical standards for those who want to serve in his administration. The suspicion that everyone gets into government to fatten up is pervasive these days.
But it would be a mistake to imagine that Clinton or anyone else can write rules that will rob government service of its market value in the private sector. The best the new president can do is put some limits on the most egregious examples of appointees exploiting public service. That is what he is trying to do by forbidding them from lobbying the agency in which they served for five years after leaving the government.
As a symbolic gesture that he plans real change in the way things are done here, Clinton could hardly have found a better avenue to approach supporters of Ross Perot, who were driven by their antipathy toward the permanent political establishment in Washington. These are the people who cheered enthusiastically as Perot berated the lobbyists for foreign governments serving on President Bush's campaign staff.
The Clinton approach has evoked predictable skepticism among veterans of the Washington scene. They are saying that the limits on lobbying, for example, might discourage some capable people from wanting to serve in the new administration.
But the truth is that the Democrats, after 12 years in the wilderness, are thirsting for a chance to take a role in the new administration. And the best people available are not the kind who are likely to see their service as primarily a ticket to a rich future as lobbyists for oil companies or foreign governments. You may find it hard to believe, but many of them actually are interested in performing public service.
The problem of the so-called revolving door -- government employees who pass through and then use their contacts to prosper in the private sector -- is by no means limited to either lobbying or presidential appointees. Those who serve on regulatory boards such as, for example, the Federal Communications Commission are always going to be in demand by law firms that specialize in communications law simply because they are so familiar with the subject matter.
There are also countless examples of agency staff members who become invaluable to the private sector because of their specialized knowledge. Deep in the bowels of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce there are faceless bureaucrats who know more about some arcane subject than anyone else in the nation -- and as a result will always be in demand from private business.
The same is true of Congress. Members of the House Ways and Means Committee and professionals who serve on that committee's staff will always be in demand in the private sector because they know both the tax code and how it is written. Restrictions on lobbying won't affect their value to law firms or businesses dealing primarily with tax matters.
Nor can the president-elect expect his code of ethical standards for appointees is going to rob the political consultants of the reputations -- and market value -- they gained from being involved in a winning campaign. Such Clinton advisers as James Carville, Paul Begala, George Stephanapoulos, David Wilhelm, Frank Greer, Mandy Grunwald and Stan Greenberg are going to be in great demand from other Democratic candidates in the next few years if they stay in the consulting business. Success is rewarded in politics just as it is in business.
Clinton also surely understands that there are many people who are going to gain simply from their connections to power. A corporation looking for a law firm in Washington is going to be aware, for example, that Vernon Jordan, the chairman of the Clinton transition board, and Mickey Kantor, his campaign chairman, are partners in firms with offices here. That's the way the world works; there is nothing unethical about hiring a law firm with Democratic connections when the Democrats are ascendant.
The president-elect is making a shrewd political move by establishing rigid ethical standards if only because it sends such a clear message that there is a new administration in power. But there is no way to rewrite one of the first rules of politics: To the victors belong the spoils.