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Restricting lobbyists won't be easy Foreign ties are pervasive in Washington

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton's promised restrictions on tie between government and lobbyists appear unlikely to shrink the growing influence of foreign governments and companies in Washington.

So pervasive is the web of connections among the capital's lawyers, lobbyists and experts that a number of the president-elect's advisers, including some widely expected to get key jobs, have at least an indirect tie to foreign interests.

Even Jack Quinn, the transition counsel drafting the new ethics rules, has law partners at Arnold & Porter with a number of foreign clients.

In his campaign, Mr. Clinton pledged to crack down on the so-called revolving door through which many government officials and experts have entered lucrative lobbying careers.

He promised that "top appointees" would sign a pledge not to lobby agencies within their responsibilities for five years after leaving office.

He also said he would "require senior officials to pledge never to become registered agents on behalf of any foreign government," and his campaign vowed that "a Clinton-Gore administration will issue an executive order banning trade negotiators from cashing in on their positions by serving as representatives of foreign corporations or governments."

But the popular backlash against lobbyists obscured important realities that Mr. Clinton will confront.

In an increasingly global economy, in which foreign firms employ more Americans and vice versa, the line between purely domestic and foreign interests is becoming harder to draw. This division will diminish further as the U.S. economic expansion continues to be driven by world trade.

And far from diminishing the efforts of lobbyists, the Clinton years could actually see an increase in lobbyists' activities as the new administration elevates trade and U.S. economic competitiveness in making foreign policy. Both draw lobbyists like moths to a flame.

Among policies that will invite strong foreign lobbying pressure are Mr. Clinton's promises to "eliminate tax breaks for American companies that shut down their American plants and ship our jobs overseas," and "crack down on foreign companies in America that prosper by manipulating tax laws to their advantage."

Mr. Quinn's team has scarcely begun work on permanent rules but hopes to have them finished by Christmas. He plans to cast a wide net for advice, touching base with the American Bar Association, academics and public interest groups.

Mr. Clinton's promised restrictions take aim at what critics claim is the worst abuse of the system: Top appointees' acquiring contacts and insider knowledge which they then can parlay into fat fees by working as consultants for foreign interests.

A five-year ban on officials' lobbying their former agencies, up from the current one-year ban, would diminish the value of connections gained by working for the taxpayer.

But the rules outlined by Mr. Clinton during the campaign contain gaps that critics say could still allow certain foreign interests to wield considerable influence.

For instance, they won't prevent former lobbyists or lobbyists' partners from getting key posts.

"It's not my expectation that these rules themselves will address the activities of people before they came into the administration, although that might be an appropriate consideration in offering a position," Mr. Quinn said. Nor are the new rules likely to bar the appointment of people whose law partners represent foreign clients.

To do so would sharply restrict the pool of talent available to Mr. Clinton.

Among top campaign advisers widely mentioned for key jobs, Samuel Berger, Warren Christopher and Vernon Jordan all are partners in law firms with substantial foreign clienteles. Mr. Berger is in charge of national security for the transition; Mr. Christopher is transition manager; and Mr. Jordan is transition chairman.

Former International Trade Commissioner Paula Stern, who has represented an interest in the Netherlands, has been mentioned as a possible U.S. trade representative, a post likely to have an even higher profile in the Clinton White House.

Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown is a partner with one of Washington's most aggressive and unabashed lawyer-lobbying firms, Patton Boggs & Blow. The firm's client list includes the governments of Egypt, Guatemala, Oman, Abu Dhabi and Uganda, as well as interests in Costa Rica, Italy and Japan.

Both former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and Clinton adviser Roger Altman, widely speculated as being in line for top Treasury posts, hold key jobs in investment firms with Japanese ties.

Such connections will figure in Senate confirmation battles. Even appointees from think tanks that get grants or funding from foreign interests will draw scrutiny, Senate staff members say.

A particular focus will be on the Office of U.S. Trade Representative, whose officials not only negotiate agreements but deliberate on how to enforce existing rules, decisions that can be worth huge sums both to domestic and foreign firms.

Trade Representative Carla Hills entered office with a heavy burden, since both she and her husband had represented numerous foreign clients. But she deflected criticism by selling stock and recusing herself from matters on which she had worked or in which her husband had a continuing involvement.

Mr. Clinton's appointees may be judged by a tougher standard than previous nominees, given his campaign rhetoric against unfair trade practices that hurt U.S. farmers, workers and businesses.

"If he doesn't live up to his campaign pledge, it will be pointed out to the American people," said William C. Triplett II, chief Republican Party counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

This scrutiny will probably extend beyond the trade office and into the Treasury, the new White House office on economic security and the State Department, which will get a new economic thrust.

Reform advocates say it won't be enough for Mr. Clinton simply to ban high officials from representing foreign governments once they leave office.

"In many countries, governments and corporations are indistinguishable," said Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity.

Even with their gaps, the expected Clinton ethics rules may cause him problems in recruiting good people, members of Washington's legal community say.

Clinton transition officials whose expertise and campaign zeal give them a fair claim to administration jobs are waiting to see what new rules are developed before considering offers that may come their way.

"There's no question that these rules are important to every one of us," said a transition official who has not personally lobbied for foreign clients but is a partner in a law firm that has. "Each individual is going to have to make a judgment as to how to reconcile those restrictions against our desire to join the administration."

Even harsh critics of foreign influence in Washington, such as Pat Choate, author of "Agents of Influence," a best-seller on Japanese lobbying in Washington, view some forms of foreign representation as acceptable, even for officials just leaving government.

Mr. Choate has no problem with lawyers who represent foreign clients in public proceedings before courts or quasi-judicial agencies not being required to register as foreign agents.

But the line between lawyering and lobbying in Washington is blurry. And reformers scoff at the idea that the current level of foreign influence has to be tolerated. Mr. Triplett, for one, insists that the Washington revolving door would be culturally and socially unthinkable in some other countries.

"It doesn't happen anywhere else except in the U.S.," he said.

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