To anyone trying to recruit people to serve in government, the doctrine of "apparent conflict of interest" seems to have a number of parallels with that of original sin -- without any of the latter's flexibility and liberality. The burden of original sin may at least be relieved by God's grace. Bit nothing, absolutely nothing, can redeem you from having an apparent conflict of interest -- if you've ever done anything or owned anything, the chances are that something you've done or owned can be related by someone in some way to something that you might do in a government job. Hence your apparent conflict.
For many years, there have been federal criminal sanctions against public officials acting on matters in which they have a financial interst. In earlier, simpler times, an official simply disqualified himself from making any government decision that might actually affect his family nest egg. If such conflicts were going to arise, too ofen he either sold the nest egg or didn't take the job.
Two trends, however, have vastly complicated this more or less sensible procedure in recent years. As government has become a much larger share of our economy and our lives, more and more corporations do business with it and are regulated by it. Under the currently used definitions, for example, there are some 26,000 corporations that "do business" with the Department of Defense (i.e., receive $10,000 or more annually from it). It takes a four-inch-thick computer run to list all the companies that do business with the Department of Energy.
In addition, over the last several years, the Carter administration and Congress have been trying to best one another in the annual Holier-Than-Thou Challenge Cup Playoffs. As a result, virtually all doubts about conflict-of-interest policy have been resolved in favor of levying added requirements on hapless government employees to avoid even the appearance of conflicts.
Since the passage of the Carter administration's Ethics in Government Act, presidential appointees and mnay senior career civil servants are now required to disclose their assets and income publicly, and to avoid a wide range of different types of contact with the government after they leave government service. Many of them have also been required by law, or by the Senate committee that considers their confirmation, to sell securities of corporations that do even an insignificant amount of business with the department they work for. Officials are thus much more likely to have to sell than used to be the case, and such forced sales in turn frequently mean that a very high proportion of the sales price is taken in taxes. (A while back, one mild-mannered appointee who had been so dunned was being needled once too often by a denizen of the Hill who was particularly incensed about the low cost of cheeseburgers in the secretary's mess. "Come on, how much does it really cost you to eat lunch in the secretary's mess?" he was challenged. "Oh," came the answer, "it's been running me about $500,000 a year.")
The first whiff of sanity came two years ago when the Carter adminstration and Congress grudingly cut back on the prohibitions contained in the original Ethics in Government Act. In the face of mass threatened resignations by everyone from NIH doctors to Navy electronics technicians, the administration and Congress on second thought decided that they hadn't really meant to decree that it was a felony to "advise or assist" anyone, however informally, regarding anything that might have been even marginally on one's turf while one had been in the government.
But at least one further step is needed. The requirements for government service are strict enough without the government's demanding, on the one hand, that an appointee sell a great deal of property to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest, and, on the other, that he then also pay a sizable chunk of the proceeds to the government in taxes. We are all permitted to sell one home, if we then buy another, without there being tax consequences -- the gain may merely be "rolled over" into the new residence. A similar procedure could be followed for those who are foced by the government to sell property to comply with conflict-of-interest rules: let them buy something else that doesn't cause a conflict-of-interest problem, but don't tax the exchange.
We have apparently decided, as a nation, to pay much lower salaries to government officials than they can earn in private life, to take away most of the once-existent perks, to require full public disclosure of what is -- to many people -- very private information and to make them sell property when there is only the most remote possibility of any conflict of interest. It seems a bit much to make them also pay a special tax for this array of delights.