THROUGHOUT his campaign, Bill Clinton spoke out against the special access enjoyed by big-moneyed interests that has been business as usual in Washington. His new transition chief, Warren Christopher, has promised the "most stringent set of ethics rules that have ever been promulgated in our country." Recently top Clinton aides stated that the president-elect would soon issue strict new ethics lines for lobbying.
With the transition underway, President-elect Clinton faces the challenge of making good on his word. There will be plenty of temptation to do otherwise. Many of the people who were close to the Clinton campaign have close financial and personal ties with industry. Many seek key positions of power. If they got their way, the Clinton administration could start out with a skewed set of priorities set by special interests.
Take trade, which will be a hot issue in the year to come as Congress grapples with the possibilities of a North American Free Trade Agreement and a new round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, negotiated up to now by United States Trade Representative Carla Hills. These agreements have been beset by controversy. Environmentalists and consumer groups are concerned that they will weaken US laws such as those that safeguard food safety and endangered-species protection. Labor fears that US jobs
will move to Mexico. Meanwhile representatives of multinational corporations seek the weaker health and safety standards they can find in other countries.
Enter the possible candidacy of Paula Stern, a former chairwoman of the International Trade Commission. She is being spoken about for the trade representative post. As president of her own consulting company, the Stern Group, she caters to such industry clients as the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA). An analysis she wrote for the GMA claims that the popular new nutrition labeling law passed in 1990, which revamps labels to provide up-to-date information on nutrition, is just another "trade barrier " that should be knocked down in the name of free trade.
Some of the other potential appointees or potential advisers on appointees include Charles Manatt, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and partner along with Clinton adviser Mickey Kantor in the law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Phelps, & Kantor. Mr. Manatt is a banking lawyer; his firm's clients for congressional lobbying have included the American Bankers Association, the Commerce Union Bank, the Connecticut National Bank, the First Bank System, and the First Pennsylvania Bank.
If, as predicted, a multibillion dollar bailout of the banking industry becomes necessary next year, Clinton's advisers must have the interests of the public, not the banks, first and foremost in their minds.
Clinton campaign aide Kantor has close ties to the tobacco industry. He represented a Los Angeles group organized by the Tobacco Institute to oppose a smoke-free restaurant ordinance, and his firm lobbies for Phillip Morris on Capitol Hill. Mr. Kantor isn't the tobacco industry's only friend with influence: Another Clinton staffer, Richard Riley, whose law firm has lobbied for tobacco interests in South Carolina, is in charge of filling sub-cabinet posts. Transition chief Vernon Jordan sits on the board of directors of RJ Reynolds Corporation. Mr. Jordan is taking a leave of absence from his board duties, but has no apparent plans to excuse himself from deliberations on health-related posts such as secretary of Health and Human Services.
ANN WEXLER, founder of the powerhouse lobbying firm The Wexler Group, and a former adviser to then-President Carter, has been floated as a possible nominee for the secretary of commerce. Her firm has represented a long list of clients including giants such as Allied-Signal, Hoechst-Roussel, Marathon Oil, Pennzoil, and American Cynamid, as well as major insurance corporations: Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Aetna Life & Casualty. Clinton has stated that reforming the health-care system will require taking
on the insurance companies. But these same companies would do their best to subvert this goal if they have a friend on the Cabinet.
The fortunate thing about all these industry-friendly prospects is that there are alternatives. Clinton could look to the vast ranks of people who are well-versed on the issues and have spent their careers working in the public interest and doing independent research. Cynics would be surprised at the wealth of human capital working in the nonprofit and academic circles, from the Children's Defense Fund to the Sierra Club to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
Clinton's choices for staff will set the tone for his administration. His statement that he will forbid officials from lobbying for their agencies for five years after leaving the government is a step in the right direction. But it's not enough. Post-employment lobbying poses a problem, but so do previous corporate connections. Will Clinton lead a government that truly represents the public? More than just Washington insiders will watch this name-game closely. So will America's voters.