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Public Papers - 1991 - October

Remarks to Representatives of Public Administration Groups on Public Service


Thank you all very, very much for being here. I know it's nice to get off of work. [Laughter] But I'm talking about getting people this interested in public service to come together. I'm particularly pleased to see Tim Clark, who is president of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration; Ray Kline, over here, the president of the National Association of Public Administrators; and then my old friend Dave Maxwell, vice chairman of the Council for Excellence in Government, all interested in public service.

I am delighted to join you this morning. I come here, I hope, in a constructive vein to discuss two issues that we all care about deeply: public service and then, Tim touched on it, public faith in government.

Like many of you, I have devoted much of my adult life to public service. And I, too, cherish public service really as a special honor and a personal obligation. And I always have. Long ago, my dad served for years as the moderator of the town meeting, the Connecticut town meeting in our town of Greenwich. It convened once a month, and people came there and talked about whatever concerned them as they always do at town meetings. It could be rowdy or boring. The meetings always, though, gave people a special sense that their opinions made a difference and that they shared something special with their neighbors and friends. Those meetings taught me just what we mean when we talk of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

The notion of public service has always motivated Americans to be Americans. More than 150 years ago, de Tocqueville noted with some astonishment that ``When an American needs the assistance of his fellows, it is very rare for that to be refused, and I have often seen it given spontaneously and eagerly.'' He did not mistake us for saints. He understood that freedom demands such service to others.

It also demands that public servants lead by example. Americans will not tolerate hypocrisy. People in other countries wonder why we make such a fuss when our leaders violate our standards of behavior. The reason is simple: As Americans, we feel that we have a destiny to lead, to show the way by ideals, not just to ourselves but to the entire world.

Yet while our Government rests upon unchanging principle, it cannot rest upon past achievements. Government, like everything else, must evolve. Our long and sturdy tradition of tolerance enables us to test new ideas through public debate. When Congress considers issues, no one minds a tough and honest discussion. We expect it. By the same token, we want and expect our free press to look beneath events, take account of people's motives, and ask tough questions rather than numbly repeating partisan propaganda or baseless rumor. We demand integrity in public behavior and discourse, and when we don't get it, we react.

The recent hearings on Judge Thomas stirred a kind of anger. The American people saw some of the seamier sides of Washington life. They saw proceedings that degenerated into target practice against good men and women. Ronnie Perry of Brunswick, Georgia, wrote me a letter. I don't know him. Here's what it said: ``It is my fear that good, honest, moral men and women in this country will no longer subject themselves to the ridicule that Judge Thomas had to face.'' Likewise, Anita Hill's backers might wonder how anyone might be expected to come forward in the future if public officials cannot maintain proper confidentiality, such as the confidentiality promised to Professor Hill.

I want to digress, though, in fairness, to read from page 3 of the hearings on the Committee on the Judiciary, because Senator Biden, in my judgment, tried. Here's what he said at the very opening of these hearings: ``Second, while I have less discretion than a judge in a trial to bar inappropriate or embarrassing questions, all of the witnesses should know that they have a right to ask that the committee go into closed session.'' He cites a rule here, rule 26.5, ``to go into a closed session if a question requires an answer that is a clear invasion to the right to privacy.

``The committee will take very seriously the request of any witness to answer particularly embarrassing questions as they view whether or not it is embarrassing to answer those questions in private.'' So I salute the Chairman for those words that went unheeded as the process unfolded.

The bruising hearings showed what happens when political factions let agendas overwhelm personal decency. Some people have tried to drag public debate to a new low, searching openly for dirt, any dirt, without regard to people's rights to privacy, sometimes without concern for the facts. While crusading pressure groups talk about their favorite issues, they forget that human beings sit there beneath the glare of the spotlight, vulnerable to assault from all quarters. The piranha tactics of smearing the individual and ignoring the issue serve no public purpose. They aim to destroy lives and wreck reputations.

The dramatic hearings and the theatrics outside the hearing rooms captivated the attention of the American public, all right. Millions upon millions of Americans watched the hearings with a combination of curiosity, suspense, and, I submit to you all, disgust. The Nation was stunned and repulsed by the spectacle. The scenes from the Senate bore little resemblance to the tidy legislative process that we all studied in school and that we describe to our children, now, maybe to our grandchildren. X-rated statements, cross-examinations pushed aside the soaps and Saturday cartoons. And the process seemed unreal, more like a satire than like the Government in which all of you, in which I, take so much pride; more like a burlesque show than a civics class.

The hearings also showed that politicians must contend with a host of different forces and influences. The public saw the congressional staffers everywhere; saw outside pressure groups exhorting and twisting, and the staffs ever-present, everywhere.

I worry that the hearings sent our people this kind of false message: ``If you want to make a difference, don't enter public service. Join a special interest group. That way, whether it's the right or the left, join a special interest group, and that way you can fight as hard as you want or as dirty as you want without any responsibility for the results.''

I served in Congress. I have great respect for Congress. I know the incredible pressure and difficulty of working there. But public faith in Congress is absolutely vital for our form of government. I think we can all work together to help strengthen its image and build greater public support.

Members of Congress criticize the executive branch all the time. That's fine, often constructively. And I offer these suggestions, then, in a spirit of constructive criticism.

First, given the outrageous nature of the leaks and the Senate's announced intention of going after them, the Senate must determine who leaked the information and turned what should have been a confidential investigation into what many people who wrote me described as ``a circus'' and ``a travesty.''

Here's a proposal that I support: The Senate should appoint immediately a special counsel to find out who leaked what and for what reasons. The public cares very much above this case, and in my view, they will for a long, long time. And the investigation ought to focus just on this case. And the special counsel should receive unfettered access to all relevant records and witnesses, and should have subpoena power to get the truth. The Senate ought to set a clear goal for finishing up the investigation. I suggest January 3d, when it returns for a new session. Frankly, the American people just will not understand it if the Senate fails to bring the leaker or leakers to justice.

Second, we must promote more tolerant, less viciously partisan debate. I've heard complaints that the White House does not consult sufficiently with Congress in matters of these nominations. Frankly, I have tried to consult with Congress. And we welcome closer consultation. Let me just get that out on the table. I don't want to put any nominee through a public meat grinder. And I always welcome advice, especially in cases that might prove controversial.

Much of what I have to say today has been sharpened by discussion with Members of Congress. But let me make it clear: I will not give a group of Senators veto power over a nominee before the Senate has conducted hearings and held a confirmation vote. I will not surrender Presidential authority or powers any more than Congress will surrender its power.

In any event, no one ought to accept the charge of insufficient consultation as an excuse for this unforgivable leak.

Third, the hearings focused attention on the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. We have taken additional steps at the White House as recently as yesterday to address the problem. We will ensure that employees of the Executive Office of the President are aware of the problem and appreciate fully our strong commitment to building a workplace free of harassment. And on March 1st, our administration submitted a civil rights bill that contains specific provisions to strengthen penalties against sexual harassment and encourage compliance with the law. That was back on March 1st. Congress will act soon, I hope by passing my civil rights bill. And at the very least, I hope Congress will pass the portions on which we have reached agreement.

But legislation alone can't solve the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment is ugly behavior. Together, we must eradicate prejudices, not just through laws, but through simple respect for other human beings. In the end, laws can punish prejudice, but they cannot, alone anyway, produce enlightenment. Only we can do that by acting on our convictions.

The Thomas hearings also raised concerns about the confirmation process generally. And let me offer several specific recommendations for reforming the process.

First, shorten the time-lapse between nominations and confirmation; shorten it to 6 weeks. It takes four times as long to secure a vote today; four times as long as it did just 30 years ago, during the Presidency of John Kennedy. It took the Senate an average of 63 days to confirm our appointments sent up in 1989; 65 days for the group nominated in 1990. We now have a large group of people waiting for the Senate to vote on their nominations, and they have been waiting an average of 80 days.

At the beginning of this week, more than 190 nominations remained pending before the Senate. A few examples: I nominated Bob Clarke, Robert Clarke, for appointment as Comptroller of the Currency on January 23d, more than 9 months ago; I nominated Larry Lindsey for a seat on the Federal Reserve Board on February 28th. In times of economic concern, we need the service of these people. And if Members of the Senate don't like my nominees, then they should vote against them. But they should not stall progress by resorting to the old, and in my view, obsolete technique of placing a hold on nominations. Once again, this isn't Republican or Democrat; it is institutional.

We in the White House certainly must do our part. We will redouble our efforts to ensure that nominees complete all their required paperwork promptly and will respond promptly to requests for further important information. I've asked our Office of the White House Counsel and Office of Government Ethics to see that our regulations and clearance procedures do not, however, discourage public service. I am committed to an ethical administration, but we must ensure that our rules have not become so detailed and so onerous as to scare good, honest people away from public service.

And second, we will work with committees in Congress to ensure the confidentiality of information. I have ordered that the FBI reports be carried directly to committee chairmen and any members designated by the chairmen. The members will read the reports immediately, in the presence of the agent, and then return them. No FBI reports will stay on Capitol Hill. And furthermore, members only will have access to these reports. Staffs will not have access to these reports.

This preserves confidentiality. In my view, it protects nominees. It protects potential witnesses against the nominees. And it protects the Members of Congress.

Third, Congress should establish a mechanism for investigating congressional leaks thoroughly, professionally, promptly. And I've met this week with several leaders from the Senate from both parties, and they agree that we must prevent future leaks and establish a suitable mechanism for investigating them swiftly, bringing culprits to justice.

There is no excuse for leaks that wreck lives and needlessly destroy reputations. The law already prohibits such leaks from the executive branch. And again, we intend to enforce that law rigorously. I know it's not easy. I've been there. I saw it when I was Director of Central Intelligence when we dealt with national security. I've seen frustrating leaks in the White House that have nothing to do with character assassination or national security, that simply relate to policy matters. I know it's not a simple matter here. But we've got to do better, both the executive and the legislative branch.

And fourth, Congress ought to follow the same laws that it imposes on everyone else. More than a dozen laws apply to the executive branch, but not the Congress. Most of these laws apply to everyone in America except Members of Congress. Congress does not have to comply with the Equal Pay Act of 1963. It does not have to follow title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a title that prohibits sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. It doesn't have to obey the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

I would wager that the American people do not know that Congress has exempted itself from the sexual harassment laws private employers and the executive branch must obey. And they have. We've heard choruses of criticism against the evils of sexual harassment. And we've received good suggestions about how to become more vigilant about this insidious crime. But these lessons should not be wasted on the men and women who drafted the law. For you see, when Congress exempts itself from the very laws that it writes for others, it strikes at its own reputation and shatters public confidence in government.

These exemptions encourage special interest groups to press, then, for reckless regulations, knowing that Congress might adopt such laws if it won't feel the sting of these laws. This practice creates the appearance and reality of a privileged class of rulers who stand above the law. Our founders thought it proposterous to suggest that such behavior would ever take place in America.

We did a little research. Federalist Paper number 57 asserts that elected officials, and here's the exact language, ``can make no law which will not have in full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of society.'' The writer of that paper also noted ominously, ``If this spirit shall ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate anything but liberty.''

The people have begun to speak now. And today I call upon the Congress to take a simple step toward increasing public confidence. Submit to the laws it imposes on others, including strict enforcement provisions, not just Ethics Committee jurisdiction, and do so by the year's end.

There's a lot of just plain people up there on the Hill trying to make a living. And people who work for Congress ought to have the same rights and legal remedies as those who work for anyone else.

But Congress also must submit to the laws that is imposed on the executive branch. And this includes the Privacy Act, which prohibits inappropriate leaks by executive agencies, title VI of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, the independent counsel law.

And all of us should demonstrate our commitment to clean and effective government. From the very start of my administration, I made it absolutely clear that I expect my appointees to follow strict standards of propriety so the American people would have full and increasing confidence in our ability and integrity.

I established a Commission on Federal Ethics Law Reform in January of 1989. I pushed for initiatives that resulted in the Ethics Reform Act of 1989. I signed an Executive order in April '89, setting forth the principles of ethical Government service. And I charged the Office of Government Ethics with issuing a single, comprehensive, and clear set of objective, reasonable, and enforceable standards. Those standards will be ready soon. They're out now for review.

In the executive departments and the White House we do strive to set and meet high standards of public service. I'll never be happy. We can always do better in the executive branch, in the departments, and in the White House. And I pledge to the American people that I'm not here to point fingers; I will continue to see that we do a better job of all of this in the executive branch of the Government. I'm going to keep on trying. But all I'm doing here is inviting the Congress to do the same. Sometimes we protest too much, and we reform too little. And so, now is the time to act.

And finally -- going on too long here, but I'm wound up on this. [Laughter] I really feel strongly about this. Finally, we all must remember that our business is to do the public's business. That becomes increasingly different for a Congress that contains more than 300 committees and subcommittees and makes use of nearly 40,000 workers.

It becomes increasingly difficult for a Congress that answers to no one with respect to its budget, its staff, its perks, even the enforcement of its own rules.

The business of doing the people's business gets even more difficult when committees make broad and unfocused demands, for example, the Judiciary Committee asked Clarence Thomas to submit more than 32,000 pages of documentation prior to his hearings. I'd hate to give a quiz to the Senators to see how many people read the 32,000 documents that they asked for. [Laughter] A defense bill routinely runs a gamut of committees and subcommittees.

I support the bipartisan effort of Senators Boren and Domenici, Representatives Hamilton and Gradison to trim this overgrown thicket of committees and subcommittees. These four are out front for congressional reform, and I salute them. Senator Boren framed the matter when he said this, ``No one doubts that Congress is in trouble as an institution. In poll after poll, Americans describe Congress'', these are his words, ``as inefficient, unresponsive, wasteful, and compromised by the way it finances its campaigns.'' ``It's time for Congress to take another look at itself,'' these four suggest. ``It's time to go beyond piecemeal efforts and to enact comprehensive, bicameral reforms.''

I support the efforts of the congressional reformers. A system originally designed to help Congress do the public's business has turned into a machine so complex and bewildering that the public doesn't understand it. Many Members of Congress do not fully understand it. Only specialists and lobbyists can pick their way through the labyrinth.

The American people want more. They want a Government that will foster economic growth and fight crime and drugs and work to improve schools and build better roads and answer the concerns of the people. And they want a Government that listens, not one that commands.

And in the end, taxpayers won't be impressed with reforms if Members of Congress pay greater heed to the beltway lobbyists and pressure groups than to constituents. If people feel powerless, they will find ways to recover their just powers.

Our founders handed down to us the finest system of Government in history, one in which the legislature and the executive do battle as part of our system of checks and balances. But we must remember who is servant and who is master. Noah Webster asked in 1802, ``If all officers of Government are the servants of the people, how can it be expected that the masters should not, at times, take the Government out of the hands of the servants.''

The reforms I've proposed today will help us do the people's business. They will rein in a Government that seems remote, seems distant and complex; they will bring it back to the people and give citizens the feeling of power that we felt at those town meetings some 60 years ago. We must remember, we come here to serve. A few simple reforms can go a long way toward building the public faith upon which our entire democracy depends.

Thank you not only for your interest but for all you do in elevating public service. It's worthwhile. Don't give up your work.

Thank you very, very much, indeed.

Note: The President spoke at 11:52 a.m. at the National Museum of American History. The following persons were not clearly identified: Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; Anita Hill, a University of Oklahoma law professor who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing; Senators Joseph R. Biden and David L. Boren; and Representatives Lee H. Hamilton and Willis D. Gradison, Jr.

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