The Columbia Daily Tribune reposts on John Ashcroft’s new lobbying firm:

Less than three months after registering as a lobbyist, former Attorney General John Ashcroft has banked at least $269,000 from just four clients and appears to be developing a practice centered on firms that want to capitalize on a government demand for homeland security technology that boomed under sometimes controversial policies he promoted while in office.

It’s all completely legal. But, should it be legal? We need to have a converstation in this country about what we think the proper rules should be for members of government that retire and go into business. On the one hand, many political figures forego much more lucrative opportunities in order to serve the nation in an official capacity. We don’t want to further discourage public service by attaching restrictions on their earning potential once they leave office. But, on the other hand, if we don’t have some legal guidelines, public servants will be tempted to use their time in office to grease their retirement.

Should a Secretary of Defense be able to take a job with Boeing? As a lobbyist? What would prevent Boeing from making promises of future employment to Defense secretaries in some quid pro quo transaction?

Part of the problem is in devising a realistic set of guidelines…rules that are both fair and enforceable.

We know what Ashcroft is doing stinks by the bad odor reading about it gives off. But Ashcroft is uniquely qualified to sell ‘homeland security technology’ in a way that he is not qualified to sell, say, real estate. Should he be denied a chance to make good money? Is that the price we want to attach to public service? Or, should we only attach it to cabinet positions?

No matter what we decide on the rules, the perception is important too. Ashcroft’s new business is a black eye to the office of the Attorney General.

While Ashcroft’s lobbying is within government rules for former officials, it is nonetheless a departure from the practice of attorneys general for at least the last 30 years. While others have counseled corporate clients or perhaps even lobbied in a specific case as part of law firm business, Ashcroft is the first in recent memory to open a lobbying firm.

Former lawmakers and other senior government officials routinely pass through the Washington revolving door and become advocates for commercial interests seeking to influence government, but the practice of former attorneys general has been to move to think tanks or academia or return to the practice of law.

Think tanks or academia? Not a lot of money in that.

“The attorney general is very much supposed to embody the pure rule of law like the” Department of Justice’s “statue of ‘Blind Justice’ and he’s not expected afterwards to cloak with the mantle of his former office a bunch of greedy interests,” said (Charles) Tiefer, who teaches law at the University of Baltimore.

So, we can all agree that Ashcroft’s new lobbying outfit is unseemly. But, should it be against the law? Can we put a blanket ban on lobbying on all retiring public officials (for say 3 years) without violating their constitutional rights? Would such a ban have enough of an effect on curbing corruption that it is worth the infringment of law and policymakers’ liberties?

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