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Two spouses, two careers: marriage and public service

The Ferraro-Zaccaro flap over finances and disclosure has raised a big, important, and growing issue to a new height of public consciousness - the dilemma of two spouses with independent careers, with one of them in public life.

This is not a new issue; it probably first emerged in a significant way in the mid-1970s, when Sen. Jacob Javits, a prominent member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was caught up in questions about his wife's employment by a public relations firm doing business for Iran Airlines.

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It would be hard to imagine a more independent marital relationship than that of the Javitses, but the potential conflict-of-interest charge was seriously raised for months, until Marion Javits backed out of her job and dropped her registration as a foreign agent (the airline was owned by the Iranian government).

While the Javits case was the first major contemporary incident of a spouse and a public official having their independent careers caught up in a conflict, it was inevitable that there would be many more, for two reasons. First is the disclosure requirements, built into ethics provisions for all three branches of government in 1978, including officials' spouses and dependent children. Second, of course, is the growing number of dual professional careers among just the kind of people likely to be attracted to public service.

I am not now in public service, but I have been in the past, as a senior congressional aide, and I can understand full well the dilemmas faced by both the public servants and the public interest. My wife is a partner in a Washington law firm, and she leads (as she has for more than a decade) a fully independent professional existence. I know the kinds of cases she works on, and we sometimes talk about the general problems in an area in which she is litigating. But I have no idea what she is doing or working on day to day; neither does she have much idea about what I do day to day. She has her own income, from which I benefit, of course. But by and large our careers are independent and our finances are a mixture of separate and commingled. At the same time, we have no problem making our family lives, including our children, totally interrelated.

In other words, our situation (though not our financial status) is much like the Ferraro-Zaccaro household's before Ms. Ferraro ran for Congress - and, I suspect, much like that of thousands of other households in America. Were I to enter public life, there would be no incentive to learn more about my wife's career, legal cases, or finances. Quite the opposite. I would go to some pains (as Ferraro did) to create even more separation, to prevent accidental conflict of interest. Neither would I be thrilled to require my wife, an independent and innocent bystander, to disclose her business practices, clients, independent investments, or other details that she rightfully regards as private. She, of course, would be even less thrilled. And if she opted for public service, I would feel the same way about my right to privacy.

Clearly, there are good reasons for disclosure, including some spousal disclosure. As the George and Connie Hansen and the Mark and Antoinette Hatfield cases demonstrate, a public official can use a spouse to get around disclosure requirements or to mask dubious financial activity; a spouse can be used to influence - or at least create an apparent influence on - the conduct of policy by a public official. Disclosure laws are an important safeguard.

But there have to be some prudent limits. We have to safeguard as well the rights of a truly independent career and private life of an individual who is not a public official. We find a growing number of such spouses, male and female - from Sandra Day O'Connor's and Pat Schroeder's lawyer husbands to the growing number of lawyer, psychologist, real-estate-broker, and academic wives of congressmen, judges, and executive officials.

When the Ethics in Government Act was passed in 1978, incorporating the ethics of the House and Senate, it required financial disclosure for spouses; but it created an exemption for financial activity independent of the public official. There is very little legislative history for this provision of the act; the major controversies were over limits on outside income for legislators and ''revolving door'' provisions for executive officials. But as Ferraro said at her press conference, by creating an exemption at all, lawmakers were suggesting that there was a limit to spousal disclosure - and not a limit that reaches absurdity, like separate refrigerators, separate vacations, or no inheritance. It is true that the subsequent guidelines of the congressional ethics panel took a harder line, but they were not based on any evidence from the earlier debate on the issue, and, in my view, they went beyond the rule of reasonableness.

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Whatever the public judgment in the Ferraro case, it should push Congress and its ethics committees next year to confront directly this broader issue: How far can we - or should we - go to involve a spouse's professional and private life in public disclosure if, as in a growing number of cases, the spouse's career has some substantial and real independence from that of a public official.

More and more couples are going to find themselves in this position - and more and more will have to think about the costs and the strains caused by the clash between private rights and public demands.

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