A Mega-State Department?

SEN. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has proposed legislation to consolidate foreign affairs agencies under the Secretary of State. The functions of the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the Agency for International Development (AID) would be placed in the State Department. The responsibilities of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) would be divided between State and Defense.

A merger proposal came originally from the State Department as a response to Vice President Al Gore's program of ''reinventing government,'' but after extensive lobbying by agency heads -- especially Brian Atwood of AID -- Mr. Gore vetoed the idea. Senator Helms picked it up and ran with it, arguing it will reduce overlaps and save money. The foreign affairs community in Washington is divided on the issue. One part of the debate is over the agencies' necessity. Were these not cold-war agencies? The cold-war argument is more true of USIA than it is of AID. Before the establishment of USIA in 1952, the US had maintained government information services only during World Wars I and II. Many in Congress and elsewhere believe that the private sector should provide information relating to America. CNN's world-wide reach is frequently cited. Those who support a continuation of an official agency believe it's needed because the US remains significant in world affairs and still suffers from the distortions of its detractors abroad.

AID's situation is somewhat different. Foreign assistance and educational exchanges existed prior to World War II, primarily directed at Latin America. President Harry Truman's Point Four program, AID's predecessor, was formed less to respond to the Soviet challenge than to meet the demands of nations newly independent after 1945. Over the years, foreign assistance has become increasingly unpopular with Congress and the public; its focus has been fogged by the mixing of developmental and political objectives. Legislative mandates have made AID an administrative nightmare; some reorganization is needed. Nevertheless, those who believe it is still in US interests to help other nations believe that such assistance is best delivered by an agency independent of the diplomatic constraints of the Department of State. Proposals at the beginning of the Clinton administration to abolish ACDA were not implemented. Problems of arms proliferation and control still exist and with them the need for the expertise of a special agency.

If one agrees that the functions of these agencies are still important, should they be independent or incorporated into a larger State Department structure? Money could be saved by an efficient consolidation. Two other questions arise, however. First, would the perspectives and skills associated with public information and economic development have room in a structure dominated by diplomatic and political concerns? Second, can a secretary of state effectively carry the enlarged management responsibilities? In this, perhaps, lies the greatest weakness of the proposal. A secretary of state has today four time-consuming roles: principal spokesman and presidential adviser on foreign policy; the nation's chief negotiator; ceremonial officer; and manager of a worldwide service of more than 20,000. How much access to a busy secretary would the specialists in the newly absorbed function have? Would congressional committees permit deputies to carry the burden of specialized testimony?

The functions of USIA, AID, and ACDA are still relevant and deserve to be retained in some form. Incorporation within the State Department may resolve some organizational problems, but it risks submerging important and quite distinct responsibilities in an already overburdened diplomatic bureaucracy.

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