FOR SEVERAL MONTHS now Jimmy Carter has had a group of assistants, led by Atlanta lawyer John L. Moore, working to formulate new and tighter rules concerning conflicts of interest in the executive branch. Wednesday Mr. Carter made their work public, along with a list of steps he intends to take himself by way of weakening any possible link between his private fortunes and his public powers.
There are several things to be said about all this. One is that the intent behind the project is wholly admirable - as are many of its specific recommendations. Another is that, admirable or not, such a project can have only a limited effect on government corruption or even impropriety. A third is that the Carter people should not regard the work of the transition task force as the last word; in the course of drafting the legislation through Congress, they may well find that some of their proposals create privacy problems, inhibitions on freedom of action and/or personal financial hardships that outweigh any potential gain in heightened governmental probity.
In fact, Mr. Carter's aides and experts have already proved commendably willing to take such difficulties into account. Althougt they were obviously committed to establishing a very strict and tough program in order to make good on the governor's campaign promise to do something about conflicts of interest in Washington, the guidelines they set forth on Wednesday did not include certain ill-advised, draconian measures that had been under consideration at one time. Financial disclosure, divestiture of relevant assets, and fairly sharp limits on what policy-making officials can do in the immediate aftermath of their government service constitute the main elements of the Carter plan. In some respects it amounts to a stiffening of rules and regulations already on the books - extending the period of time for certain inhibitions, broadening the scope of disclosure, enlarging the off-limits area for public officials newly out of office, and so on. Gov. Carter also intends to be much more energetic than his predecessors in enforcing current conflict-of-interest laws and regulations, and the letter of intent he expects policy-making officials to sign should remove any doubt about his seriousness on this question.
Having said all that, we would enter a couple of reservations. It is fine and dandy to try to do something more about the "revolving door" practices that afflict the conduct of various government agencies. Some pretty bald and unattractive moves from industry into government and back again, with attendant unfair profit, have been documented in recent years. But just about everyone familiar with the conflict-of-interest problem in Washington acknowledges that any new set of Caesar's wife rules, such as those the Carter people have in mind, has a large element of window dressing to it - that it is at least as much meant to still public anxieties about Washington behavior as it is to modify or improve that behavior. And that is because the principal sources of corruption simply do not repose in the area being addressed by tightened conflict-of-interest rules - any more than Mr. Carter's own conduct (or potential misconduct) can be expected to be profoundly altered by the disposition of his financial investments. The dangers, therefore, are twofold: that excessively restrictive conditions of employment will keep good people from taking certain government jobs, and that the public itself will be further disillusioned by an administration that puts too much emphasis on a collection of tough rules that have more to do with appearance than reality.
The manner in which the Carter group's conclusions evolved suggest to us that a welcome degree of sense and sensitivity was brought to the subject, and that in turn suggests that the Carter administration will be wary of these pitfalls in it program. Somewhat more needs to be known about the way the general program will be enforced before its merit can finally be judged. At this point, though, it seems fair to say that Mr. Carter is on the right road - and should proceed with caution.