Every once in a while, Congress stubs its toes by passing a bill that does something the lawmakers hadn't really intended.
That seems to be the case with the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 that - beginning Jan. 1 this year - outlaws the earning of almost any outside income by federal workers.Members of the executive branch, which includes all regular federal employees, have long been prohibited from collecting fees for speaking or writing about topics linked to their official duties or business conducted by their agencies. There's nothing wrong with such a law.
The Ethics Reform Act of 1989 was intended to eliminate payments of honorariums to lawmakers and toughen rules for the executive branch, but in the process it somehow banned all compensation to civil service workers for speeches and articles on any subject.
That has resulted in employees being prohibited from engaging in activities that have nothing to do with their jobs, harmless moonlighting that is now not allowed - a gag on their free speech.
For example, those hit by the law include an IRS worker in Ogden who holds a master's degree in geophysics and earned a little money in 1991 writing and speaking about earthquake preparedness and similar subjects; another IRS worker in St. Louis who did a little part-time work covering baseball and hockey games for the Associated Press; an after-hours dance instructor (the law says this is a form of speaking for a fee) and even the creators of crossword puzzles who sell them to newspapers and magazines.
What such activities have to do with ethics in government is a great mystery. There is no conflict of interest at all. Even worse, while such harmless moonlighting is being prohibited, members of the U.S. Senate can still give speeches for a fee. It looks like the question of ethics is being applied in the wrong place.
Lawyers for some of the federal workers had asked the U.S. Supreme Court for an emergency ruling to prohibit the law from taking effect Jan. 1 while a formal appeal was being prepared. But the high court this week refused to take such action, saying there was insufficient "irreparable harm" to require an emergency decision. The issue will have to work its way through the courts on the usual slow schedule.
This has caused Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, to announce that he will file a bill to modify the ethics law and allow some moonlighting. That would make more sense than the total ban that currently exists.
"There is a certain element of overkill here . . . which Congress did not intend," Hansen said. Bush administration officials admit the law was poorly drafted and was rushed through Congress when it should have been rewritten.
Congress should move quickly to correct this mistake and end the hardships caused by badly crafted, too-hurried legislation.