For critics of ethics reform, William J. Bennett yesterday became the new Exhibit A -- a case study of a public official hurt by strict laws limiting the post-employment activities of government officials.

After publicly agreeing to become the new Republican National Committee chairman last month, Bennett stunned the political world by announcing he was turning the position down because he feared it might place him in a position where conflict-of-interest questions could be raised -- especially since he intended to take honoraria from private interest groups.

"This is not the kind of situation that anybody had in mind" in debating ethical standards, said lawyer Lawrence E. Barcella, who represented Lyn Nofziger, the former White House aide whose conviction on ethics violations was overturned by a federal appeals court last year.

For some ethics experts and public interest lobbyists, Bennett's decision does nothing to affect the debate on ethics laws.

Bennett's contention that contacts he might have had with White House officials could be construed as lobbying on behalf of private interests "doesn't hold any water," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, the public interest group that lobbied for a tough new ethics law passed by Congress last year. "To the extent that anybody says this shows overreaching by Congress, it's a phony."

Bennett's decision yesterday underscored the complexities that have surrounded much of the debate over drawing ethical lines governing public officials. The Bennett's situation appears to be unique since the 1978 Ethics in Government Act was passed.

Last year, following a wave of disclosures about former Reagan administration officials cashing in on their high-level government positions, Congress acted to toughen the 1978 law and clear up ambiguities and loopholes cited by its critics.

The new law -- the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 -- prohibited former officials from using confidential government information to represent private interests, barred them from representing foreign governments on matters before their former agencies and placed new restrictions on lobbying the agencies or Cabinet departments where they used to work.

At the time, some administration officials warned that the restrictions were so broad that it could trigger mass resignations among senior government officials who feared for their livelihoods after they left public service. More than 30 top officials in the Defense Department and NASA were reported to have left and White House personnel said they were having trouble attracting top-flight corporate executives to take new jobs in the Bush administration.

"We don't want to make life after government restricted to retirement, Social Security or flipping hamburgers . . . ," said Charles G. "Chase" Untermeyer, the director of presidential personnel.

Yesterday, some officials suggested, there were already signs that their warnings might be realized. The day before Bennett's announcement, Defense Department procurement chief John A. Betti -- under fire for his management of expensive new weapons programs -- said he was resigning this month to escape from the new law's restrictions.

But Stephen Potts, the new director of the Office of Government Ethics, said that with the exception of Betti, he is not aware of a single government official who has indicated he or she plans to resign over the new law. The only complaints he has received are over another section of the act barring federal employees from accepting honoraria for speeches, articles or public appearances.

Potts said the new restriction on honoraria has elicited apparently legitimate protests from civil servants and that his office is working with congressional sponsors to amend it.

"It's the kind of thing where you get a person who was an expert on wine and wrote occasional articles on wine or somebody who raises sheepdogs and gives talks to kennel clubs," Potts said. "It's not necessary to protect the integrity of the government."

But nothing in the new law would apply to Bennett, since he left his government job as national drug control policy director in November and the new restrictions don't take effect until next month. "He's not covered," said Wertheimer.

In fact, sources close to Bennett said yesterday, his concerns about the Republican National Committee job had more to do with appearances than any clear restrictions in the new or old ethics law.

As the former director of national drug control policy, Bennett was a White House official. As RNC chairman, he would be in regular contact with White House officials about major policy matters, including a host of issues -- such as environmental laws or civil rights legislation -- in which private industry has an interest.

Bennett wanted the freedom to accept hefty honoraria fees for speaking before private groups -- a latitude he felt he needed to repay a book advance. Bennett's speaking agency reportedly has told him he could earn as much as $25,000 a speech, according to administration officials.

As a result, questions arose about whether Bennett could be seen as "agent" or representative of his honoraria donors and his routine discussions with White House officials as an "intent to influence" his former agency on their behalf -- a course of conduct that would put him in violaton of the 1978 law.

On its face, some experts said, Bennett would still be in the clear. If the mere acceptance of honoraria from a private group was sufficient to make one a lobbyist for that group, then a sizeable number of House members and senators could equally be interpreted as lobbyists for the trade associations and interest groups that pay them honoraria fees, they noted.

Bennett's brother, Washington lawyer Robert Bennett, who is special counsel to the Senate ethics committee in its current probe of five senators' ties to savings and loan executive Charles H. Keating Jr., warned him that accepting the job could result in a "very combustible mixture."

"Bob's advice in the strongest terms was, 'If you're dealing with the executive office of the president on policy matters, you're vulnerable to criticism,' " said one close Bennett associate. "The lawyers can dress it up, you can do recusals, but you're going to be vulnerable to attack."

Some ethics experts said yesterday that the potential for at least allegations of conflict of interest involving a party chairman was not without precedent. Three years ago, then-Republican Party chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. came under fire after it was disclosed that he set up a meeting with then-Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige on behalf of lobbyists for Toyota Motor Sales USA, a client of his law firm, Hogan & Hartson.

"In recent years, the chairmen of both political parties have wielded extensive influence on behalf of private interests -- the Republican chairman with the executive branch and the Democratic chairman with the Congress," said Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity. "It makes absolute sense for there to be rules for them."