THE GOOD NEWS is that people in Congress and the executive branch have, over the past several years, got rid of the defective notion that conflict-of-interest is something a person might be afflicted with on the way into government, but not on the way out. For it used to be that almost no mind was paid to what a person did by way of exploiting his government connection once he had gone on to the private afterlife, just as long as he had been more or less stripped of relevant assets -- and dignity and privacy -- before taking federal office. Now that is different. A great deal of attention is paid to the manner in which people depart government service and how they behave once gone. And that brings us to the bad news: As seems to be the American way in these matters, the nation has evidently once again overdone it, crafting a statute governing the post-governmental life of federal officials that is punitive and misguided to a degree almost bound to cause an exodus of decent and valuable people from office.

We are not using the word "punitive" metaphorically here. Three punishable crimes are established in the statute (the Ethics in Government Act of 1978) whose labyrinthine terms are only now beginning to become clear to the wide variety of individuals who will come under its jurisdiction. Roughly, these involve: 1) a strengthening of the terms of a lifetime ban (already in effect) against almost any federal employee's representing outside interests in cases before government concerning matters with which he had had a substantial personal connection while in office; 2) a sort of year-long limbo for top-level executive-branch officials and military officers who will be barred from having any professional dealings with their former agencies or place of work for the first 12 months after they have left office; and, 3) a provision that these same top officials may not, for two years after leaving office, "aid, assist, counsel, advise or assist in representing" anyone before the government on a matter for which he had responsibility, even indirectly.

This last one is the big potential troublemaker. It does not just require that a person avoid fishy or even remotely questionable contact with government himself after leaving office. Practically speaking, for many people this could also cut off for two years the opportunity to work for almost anyone who had almost anything to do with their former employer. Hale Champion, the undersecretary of HEW, observed the other day that this would pretty much cut him off from any reasonable employment opportunities when he leaves office, and the same is probably true for countless others -- especially scientists, educators and technicians.

The big furor in government about this now concerns the fact that unless individuals have left office by July 1 of this year, they will come under the new act's terms. So there is considerable heaving and hoing about what to do to tame the trouble. Naturally, by way of making the thing "reasonable" -- this is always what happens -- the legislators put in certain explanations and refinements and exceptions which, as always, only have made matters more complicated. What is it exactly that thou shalt not do, if thou happens to be an affected GS-17? No one can be entirely sure. An Office of Government Ethics (Orwell would surely have called it the Ministry of Virtue) has been established to sort matters out. Presumably in the regulations it is scheduled to issue, the ethics office can in some measure modify the harshness of the law. But felonies -- two years and $10,000 -- are felonies. And bad law is bad law. We think the administration and Congress should start urging a rational and generous interpretation of the "regs" on this law as an immediate step -- and that Congress, with administration support, should start cranking out some amendments to undo the over-reactive and under-intelligent aspects of the law itself -- and fast.