IT STRIKES us, as we read the recurring accounts of alleged slips, slides and lapses of high administration officials, that something has been left out of their job training. They don't seem to have a very clear fix on the generally accepted standards of propriety for people in high government office.
Ignorance of the law, as we were all told early in life, is of course no excuse. But it's still the most popular explanation among officials who have been found using government staff for private purposes, hedging on financial disclosure forms or maintaining questionable ties with private firms. Rita Lavelle, for example, says that--while she knows better now--she never realized that there was any impropriety in taking expensive lunches from firms involved in regulatory matters before the EPA.
Arthur Hull Hayes Jr., commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, expresses surprise about concern that there might have been any overlapping between the fees and travel expenses he was paid by outside groups and reimbursement he received from his agency. Dr. Hayes says he appreciates "that some people in government are supposed to be cleaner than Caesar's wife and all the rest of it, but one also still has to live." By way of differentiating his case from those of others he adds that, "quite honestly, my time in government is a hiatus."
Hiatus shmiatus--Dr. Hayes has got it all wrong. It's not some people in government who are supposed to be above suspicion. It's all of them. That's a condition the republic is not likely to attain in this millenium or perhaps even the next. But it ought to be understood as the objective, and not just by the lifetime civil servant. It should be understood and embodied by the political appointees who are supposed to set the tone for government.
How do you get people, if not to think this way, at least to be clearly warned as to what the standards are and what is to be expected? Miss Lavelle points to an obvious remedy. When she came to government, no one apparently even bothered to tell her that EPA-- like all other agencies--has a detailed code of ethics and a designated official to assist in its interpretation. "It's typical of what happens to a lot of people when they come to Washington," she says. "You're not trained; you're not told how to conduct yourself. . . ."
For some it will be hard to believe that these basic modes of proper conduct are so exotic and obscure as to require special instruction. But let's grant that they may be and make sure we eliminate the excuse. No doubt some agencies already make a strong effort to see that appointed officials are aware of their obligations. But the practice is far from uniform. So it's up to the White House to see that all current incumbents are suitably educated and to set better procedures for the future.
The time to make sure that appointees know what is expected of them is when they are being prepared for their confirmation hearings. If they think they can't "live" with the rules, that's the time for them to go live someplace else.