Troubled by what some described as the "sleaze factor" among staff members or former staff in the Reagan administration, President Bush has called for a high standard of ethics among appointees. That is to be applauded, but there are problems in defining ethics.
A conflict of interest is usually easy to tackle. But there appears to be some confusion about the prohibition against the "appearance" of a problem, even if no real conflict exists.The "appearance" rule dates back to an executive order issued by former President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The difficulty is that the people Bush has tapped for top administrative positions are wealthy Americans who have been associated with banks, major private companies and law firms - entities that inevitably have had some dealings with the federal government or foreign nations.
How does one handle situations where former companies or associates are involved in a government matter? Does the Cabinet member excuse himself from taking part in the decision? That could hobble the effectiveness of some Cabinet members who have had far-flung associations in their past.
Secretary of Defense nominee John Tower is one example. Aside from his troubles over his lifestyle, Tower is faced with the problem of removing himself from decisions involving a variety of major defense contractors who paid him fees when he was a lobbyist.
In the Justice Department, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh may have to remove himself from any decisions involving 23 major corporations where he is a stockholder or where his former law firm is involved. Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher has the same problem with oil and gas or cosmetics industries in which he and his wife have holdings. The list goes on and on.
Louis Sullivan, secretary of Health and Human Services, a former president of Morehouse School of Medicine, who could hardly be called wealthy, may have to give up severance pay and his pension from the school to avoid any "appearance" of conflict on health matters.
If taken too far, this problem could mean that many talented people would refuse to serve. If one has to divest everything, including a pension, in order to hold a high government job, the price may be too high.
A commission on ethics appointed by Bush is due to make its final recommendations this week. Let's hope its findings clear up some of the confusion and don't simply muddy the waters even more.