Dispatch from the Hall of Mirrors:
H.R. 5997 was signed into law last week by President Carter. No bugles, no Marine band. Just a simple sweep of the pen, and there it was.
Innocuous, really. H.R. 5997 requires that the Code of Ethics of Government Service be displayed in federal offices with 20 or more workers.
1. Put loyalty to the highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to persons, party or government department.
Some would (and did) say, ha, more of that symbolic malarkey that can never replace the pithy reality of a Leavenworth or an Allenwood. But wait a minute.
Symbol, in our totemic federal city, often is substance, and vice versa. This is, after all, the place where pitchers, executive desks and office sizes as the imprimatur of their being.
Which may go a long way toward explaining why H.R. 5997 found such wary resistance in the bureaucratic byways of power. They understand symbols.
III: Give a full day's labor for a full day's pay: giving earnest and best thought to the performance of duties.
The old Department of Health, Education and Welfare said H.R. 5997 was a decent idea, but unneeded, since the code, as everyone knows, is printed in Title 45, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 73.
Adm. R. G.Freeman III, head of the General Services Administration, which has had it own ugly ethics problem, agreed the bill was a decent idea. But he said it would cost too much and be a bother to busy agency directors.
The boys at Carter's Office of Management and Budget -- specifically, assistant director James M. Frey -- took the same tack. Too expensive, too duplicative of other laws. Don't pass it, Frey told the House.
IV: Seek to find and employ more efficient and economical ways of getting tasks accomplished.
What nobody counted on was the persistence of Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.) and Ivan Hill, two icon-busters in this governmental Stonehenge, who fathered H.R. 5997.
Theirs is a story of an effort to resurrect a basic totem of government and how, before they triumphed , they were caught in the rotors of the federal engine.
Bennett, 69, is chairman of the House Committee on Standards of Offical Conduct. He comes about as close as any member of Congress can to being a paragon of ethical behavior.
Hill, 73, a retired but relentless former businessman and advertising executive, heads an organzation called American Viewpoint. Its business is the promotion of ethical behavior everywhere.
Through Bennett's prodding, Congress in 1958 passed the Code of Ethics for Government Service. It consisted of 10 simple rules, although for many, obviously, not that simple to live by.
Copies were printed and some were framed and hung. That was that. Reprints, second editions? Impossible, because the Government Printing Office destroyed the original plates.
Last year, Hill, coming up for air from one of his recurring states of dismay over private and official corruption, went to see his friend, Bennett.
He said something like, what the hell, Charlie, how can federal employes be expected to do right if they don't even know there is a code of ethics for them?
X: Uphold these principles, ever conscious that public office is a pubic trust.
Bennett agreed and he introduced H.R. 5997, just requiring that the code, with a couple of small changes, be hung in places where it could be seen and reflected upon.
Reps. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo) and James M. Haney (D-N.Y.) pushed it through Haney's Post Office and Civil Service Committee. In the Senate, Lawton M. Chiles Jr. (D-Fla.) embraced it and told his staff to get it passed.
That is when Gsa and Omb starting objecting. Freeman said it would cost at least $200,000 for framing and hanging, apart from printing costs. OMB echoed that objection.
Congress, in its wisdom, occasionally recognizes a good idea for what it is.
H.R. 5997 cleared the hurdles of opposition and whizzed through to passage.
But this really was a deal Congress could not refuse, which is just about the best part of this story.
VI: Make no private promises of any kind binding upon the duties of office, since a government employe has no private word which can be binding on public duty .
The way Ivan Hill got Congress to go along with such alacrity was to promise that American Viewpoint would pay the cost of printing and laminating 200,000 full-color copies of the code of ethics.
"At the most, it's going to cost us $65,000 to get this job done -- $14,000 for the metal grommets, alone," Hill said the other day. "Now the problem is GSA. Nobody down there wants to talk to me about distribution or size."
"If they think, after all of this, that I'm going to leave them alone, they're crazier than hell."
So Hill thinks people in high places understand symbols as well as he does.
He also thinks the code, once it takes root in bureaucratic minds, is going to create an ethical revolution.
"This will have far more impact than people imagine," Hill said. "It comes through what we call 'consensual validation' -- you get group acceptance of ideals, you break the prison of peer group rejection."
Hill continued, "We've got to find a way to make it all right for people to be honest, so they won't feel they are suckers for following the law. I think these codes will have a phenomenal effect."
IX: Expose corruption wherever discovered.
He predicts that altered behavior by observance of the code "will save the government from $1 billion to $3 billion a year in waste, fraud and absenteeism. . . . And it's going to open whistel-blowing from top to bottom."
Snicker if you like, but it won't faze Ivan Hill. "People think I'm idealistic and obsessed. I'm a bastard-like do-gooder, a businessman, practical. You watch what happens with this," he said.