Bush Appoints Panel on Federal Code of Ethics
President Bush, declaring that current ethics standards are not sufficient “to eliminate abuse of public office for private gain,” appointed a commission Wednesday to review federal ethics rules as they apply to all three branches of the government.
“We need an unambiguous code, a code of conduct, to ensure that those who serve the public trust avoid any actual or apparent conflict between their personal and public interests,” he said at a White House ceremony.
The announcement reflected the new Administration’s determination to tackle early an issue that became a millstone for the Reagan Administration--conflict of interest questions about several of former President Ronald Reagan’s closest advisers.
During the day, Bush also appeared during an interview to take a step back from Reagan’s commitment to send a U.S. delegation to a Moscow human rights conference in 1991. On other subjects, he stressed the role of education rather than increased spending in the anti-drug campaign and said that he favors “prudent development” in the potentially oil-rich Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
Bush’s top advisers, eager to get the new President’s Cabinet appointees confirmed by the Senate and on the job, were heartened Wednesday as the controversy over Bush’s nomination of Dr. Louis W. Sullivan as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services appeared to lose some steam. Sullivan has come under fire for suggesting to some members of Congress that he personally supports the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe vs. Wade, that overturned prohibitions on abortion.
After meeting with Sullivan, Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.), a leading Senate opponent of abortion, said he is convinced that “Sullivan believes in his heart that the Roe vs. Wade decision should be overturned.” Asked whether he had any reservations about the secretary-designate, Humphrey said: “Not in my mind on the basis of this meeting.”
In addition, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu said that a “package” of people with clearly anti-abortion views was assembled for senior jobs in the agency, including Constance J. Horner, former director of the Office of Personnel Management, who would be the undersecretary, and Dr. James Mason, who heads the Centers for Disease Control, who would be assistant secretary for health.
Bush said in the interview, conducted in the Oval Office by reporters from the New York Times and the Houston Post, that he envisioned no circumstances that would lead him to withdraw Sullivan’s nomination. And, he said, “I’ve not heard anyone suggesting that he will not be confirmed.”
Asked what Sullivan told him about the nominee’s view of the court decision, Bush said: “He has supported my position 100%.”
Bush opposes abortion except in cases where pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, or when the procedure is required to save the life of the mother. Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) said Tuesday that Sullivan had expressed his personal support for the Supreme Court decision during a recent meeting.
On the subject of the Moscow human rights conference, Bush made it clear that the United States’ participation in the meeting would hinge on the Soviet Union’s human rights record as the conference approaches.
“We need to look for performance and there will be time in which to see performance in that regard,” he said. “I’d say that there has been definite improvement in some ways there. But let’s see what develops as we move towards that conference date.”
Bush’s 12-minute interview reflected a White House experiment to find a substitute for the practice of shouted questions at presidential photo opportunities, which Bush has said he will not allow. After the session, the White House released its transcript of the discussion.
In naming his eight-member President’s Commission on Federal Ethics Law Reform, Bush demonstrated that he is still learning the ways of the White House. He used two pens to sign the executive order creating the panel, and then had to be reminded to present the pens to the chairman, retired U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm R. Wilkey, and the vice chairman, Griffin B. Bell, who was the attorney general during the first three years of the Jimmy Carter Administration.
Other commission members: Jan W. Baran, general counsel to the Republican National Committee; Judith H. Bello, soon to leave her post as general counsel to the U.S. trade representative; Lloyd N. Cutler, Carter’s White House counsel in 1979 and 1980; Fred F. Fielding, Reagan’s first White House counsel; former Sen. Harrison H. Schmitt (R-N.M.), who also is a former Apollo astronaut, and R. James Woolsey, former undersecretary of the Navy.
Bush asked the panel to make recommendations for legislation and administrative steps by March 9. The commission’s report is seen as a step toward preparing new legislation to replace a toughened ethics bill that Reagan vetoed in November.
The President directed the panel to adhere to four principles: ethics standards for public servants must be tough enough to inspire public confidence, they must be fair, they must treat all three branches of the government equally and they cannot be so restrictive that they discourage people from entering public service.