Supreme Court may ponder ban on honoraria


WASHINGTON -- Lawyers for federal employee unions say the Clinton administration intends today to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its defense of the honoraria ban that prohibits federal employees from being paid for outside work.

Since Congress imposed the ban in 1991, the unions have challenged its constitutionality, arguing that the restriction violates workers' constitutional right to free speech. Last March, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the ban is "overinclusive."

In September, a federal appeals court voted, 8-2, to deny the government's challenge of that ruling.

If the Supreme Court decides to take up the case, arguments before the nation's highest court should be heard in the term that begins in October.

But Congress could decide to scale back the ban, originally designed to keep Capitol Hill staff members from pocketing extra cash. The worry was that lobbyists and others seeking to win favors from influential federal officials could line their pockets by compensating them for speeches and articles outside their work.

In November, a House subcommittee approved a bill that caps such compensation at $2,000 for an article or speech and bars accepting honoraria from any entity that has a relationship with the federal employee's agency. Thus, for example, a Defense Department official could not be invited by a weapons contractor to discuss butterfly collecting.

The honoraria ban has gained symbolic importance among many federal workers; and many lawmakers, including Ohio Democratic Sen. John Glenn, who chairs the Senate panel that decides federal work force issues, have supported the unions fight to end to the ban.

"It's a very simple situation for them to do -- to just let it drop," said Gene Voegtlin, a legislative liaison with the National Federation of Federal Employees. "This is a relatively easy way for them to ease up."

"The [Clinton] Justice Department has chosen to take the struggle over the question of honoraria to the last legal end," said Robert Tobias, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which has been fighting for more than two years to end the ban and which filed suit to overturn it. "It's a needless high court exercise."

Attorneys for NTEU and other unions argue that employees who have expertise in areas outside their official capacities should be allowed to receive money for articles and speeches on those topics.

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