WITH world eyes nervously looking for any moves by the American government to ease its balance-of-payments problems, the current administration appears to be uncomfortably confused about which move to take next. President Reagan may have presented a strong position against any tax increases, but his administration officials appear almost not to know in which direction to turn. This was painfully obvious in a recent White House meeting of the Citizens Network for Public Affairs, an organization made up of an impressive list of members, including top-level industry executives and current and past Cabinet-level officials. Presentations were made by President Reagan himself, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and Secretary of Agriculture Richard Lyng. Cabinet members who were traveling to the Soviet Union at the time were represented by deputies: Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead, and Gen. Colin L. Powell, deputy national-security adviser.
Secretary Weinberger, the first of the formidable roster of speakers, stressed that it was not the defense budget that was causing the imbalance, but he pointed out that each time the Congress reduced the defense budget it increased the budget for domestic entitlements programs. This point was stressed also by the President, who was the final speaker before the lunch, served the attendees at the State Department. A point made by all the speakers was, however, that the public should aid the administration in its efforts, and General Powell appealed to the audience that ``all we ask of you is to let us continue such activities'' (such as their person-to-person program). He stated quite frankly that a strong case for just this approach had not been made on the hill and to the people.
The deputy secretary of state was almost as frank as was Powell. He said that the people did not appear to know or care for those in the State Department, indicating that the State Department personnel created a strange and aloof impression on the people. He said that if they continue to cut the budget for the State Department, ``what we have worked together so hard to achieve will wither.'' Another statement by one of the Cabinet officers was that ``If we are to remain a world power we will have to have adequate funding.'' The obvious but unspoken administration message was that if taxes are not increased, there will have to be continued budget cuts. The government has not shrunk, as was promised, but has, on the contrary, continued to grow in size.
All the officers congratulated the group for its work in creating a public awareness of the government's successes and needs among the people. Completely missing, however, was any plea for advice on whether or not the participants even supported the policies for which the administration was pleading support. The citizens group was assumed to be in strong and complete accord. Although the administration officials all indicated that the members of the Citizens Network were to ``educate'' the people, the meeting had all the earmarks of a strong lobbying effort, and each of those who participated was subsequently asked to make a donation.
Those who have spent any time in Washington realize that the administration has lost its strength in dealing with the Congress. They were, nevertheless, surprised that the administration had so tacitly but clearly confirmed this point to the group of people in the meeting.
There was hardly anyone in the room who, if he wanted to obtain something from government, has not taken his point to Capitol Hill rather than to an appropriate administration office which might not be able to comply or might not even listen. The move to Capitol Hill is so strong, and the shift of power from the executive to the legislative branch has been taking place over such a long period of time, it seems doubtful that the group could change it, even if it felt so inclined. And the executive branch officials are themselves, unwittingly perhaps, encouraging the shift. John Whitehead should have been reminded that it is virtually impossible for a private citizen to talk business with a high-level State Department official, even if he represents an important national constituency. Mr. Whitehead merely pointed out that he had never before seen the morale at the State Department as low as it is. If the State Department feels isolated from the public, is this isolation not then self-inflicted?
The Department of Agriculture is one agency with an identifiable constituency, and even this agency is losing its influence over the farmers who make up that constituency. It was not for nothing that Mr. Lyng spoke of the need to increase US trade in agricultural products. Certainly invited to speak because agriculture is a very significant factor in both the US trade imbalance and the US budget deficit, Lyng also admitted that their export subsidy program was run in a way that gave the Department of Agriculture unusual and great power over the markets. He could have said that they now function almost like a grain board, but without the responsibilities of one.
It may be disappointing, but, if so, so is the administration's current posture toward the current and very serious national and international problems. This was certainly manifest by the presentations made at the meeting. This is not the first administration to experience the problem, but it has grown and continues to grow. The current administration's posture is contributing its share to this rapid erosion of its own power.
Joseph Halow is former executive director of the North American Export Grain Association Inc.