WASHINGTON — For lack of a working kitchen, the United States ambassador to the former Soviet republic of Moldova must wash her dishes in her bathtub. Officials at the US mission to the United Nations must sometimes call the State Department from pay phones because their internal lines fail.
Such woes are among a growing litany of problems with which Clinton administration officials say US diplomats are having to cope because of deep cuts in recent years in the foreign-affairs budget.
But these fiscal problems may soon be eased - at least, if the Clinton administration has its way. The White House is expected to propose a $1.9 billion boost in foreign affairs spending for next year. This, along with the arrival of the forceful Madeleine Albright at the State Department, may herald a new era of US activism in diplomacy.
Administration officials warn that a continued squeeze at Foggy Bottom could have profound consequences. By forcing embassy closures and foreign-aid cuts and limiting diplomatic responses to crises, resource shortages could constrain US influence on global and regional developments.
"It compromises our ability to lead," says a senior US official.
Secretary of State-designate Madeleine Albright has indicated the second Clinton administration will make restoring foreign-aid funding a top priority, telling lawmakers last week the US cannot expect top-notch diplomacy "on the cheap."
As part of that effort, President Clinton is expected to propose a fiscal 1998 budget that calls for boosting foreign aid and operations funding by about $1 billion, to $19.3 billion. In addition, he is expected to push a plan to pay $1 billion in membership dues and peacekeeping bills the US has withheld from the United Nations in an effort to force reforms on the organization.
Acceptance of the proposal by the new Congress is uncertain. Many members of the GOP majority oppose foreign-aid "handouts." Swayed by a public misperception that foreign-affairs funds constitute up to 20 percent of the federal budget, they may be unwilling to restore cuts they themselves championed after winning control of Capitol Hill in 1994.
Furthermore, both parties are now firmly wedded to balancing the federal budget by 2002. Faced with having to chose between domestic or foreign programs, many lawmakers would likely opt to slash spending abroad.
"There are questions being raised about the solvency of Social Security. We are facing a crisis in Medicaid. Sonny doesn't know how he could say to people in his district that we are calling for more sacrifices at home but we are going to spend more money overseas," says Jo Bonner, a spokesman for Rep. Sonny Callahan (R) of Alabama, chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees foreign affairs appropriations.
Laments Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the few GOP advocates of boosting the foreign-affairs budget: "The mood is being set by the desire to balance the budget."
Now set at about 1.2 percent of overall federal spending, foreign-affairs allotments have been cut about 20 percent since the early 1990s. They are projected to fall to $16.5 billion by 2002 under budget-balancing plans advanced last year by the White House and Congress.
Call for leaner State Department
Budgetary politics aside, increasing foreign-affairs funding could also run into opposition for reasons. Many lawmakers believe that with the end of the cold war, the foreign-policy bureaucracy should be reduced. They have been calling for eliminating the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the Agency for International Development, and rolling their functions into the State Department.
The plan's proponents, led by Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, failed to win administration support last year. But they appear to have no intention of relenting. "All of us working together must find ways to protect US interests overseas in a more efficient manner by discarding outdated and failed programs and agencies having little relevance in today's world," Mr. Helms declared at Ms. Albright's confirmation hearings.
Helms has also been a leading advocate of withholding US payments to the UN until the organization takes greater steps toward reducing its bureaucracy and rooting out corruption and waste. He says reform has not gone far enough, indicating another possible reason for opposing the administration's plan to pay its UN arrears.
Albright, who led the US fight to oust former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, agrees on the need for greater UN reforms. But she supports paying the $800 million in dues and $300 million in peacekeeping costs the US owes.
For some advocates of boosting foreign-policy spending, the Clinton proposal may not be sufficient. A new study by the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Affairs calls for hiking the foreign-affairs budget to $21 billion in fiscal 1998, with adjustments for inflation through 2002.