Slicing away at State

CONGRESS can't have it both ways. Capitol Hill often complains that the United States' ability to influence other nations and shore up its national security is less than it used to be. But the lawmakers are reinforcing their own disappointments by once again slashing what President Reagan calls his ``rock bottom'' request for foreign aid and the budget to run the State Department.

Foreign aid has always been an easy slice, lacking a vocal constituency. But Congress needs to think harder about what is in the US national interest and where its money priorities ought to be.

Some congressional Democrats taking part in the budget summit have put forth a plan to avert the cuts at the State Department. But if they don't succeed, the ultimate cuts would amount to 15 percent and could be deepened by another 8.5 percent cut by Gramm-Rudman.

Yet the nations Washington helps buy a third of US exports; developing countries now make up half of America's top 20 trading partners. Hit particularly hard by the cutbacks are the many African nations which, at Western bidding, have made major economic reforms; many also face rising foreign debts and falling commodity prices.

The State Department has planned to respond to the $84 million cut by Congress by closing two embassies in Africa and 13 consulates overseas; 13 consulates were closed last year. Also to go, by attrition and early retirement, are 1,270 civil and Foreign Service employees - more than 8 percent of the department's staff.

Congressional critics say the department is just picking visible cuts to dramatize the dollar squeeze. Yet, already departments of the US government other than the State Department account for 70 percent of all US personnel stationed abroad. Though diplomats have often proved more valuable sources of information than US intelligence sources, personnel posted in US embassies and consulates by the Defense Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and National Security Agency are having to take over many traditional State Department chores.

The State Department cuts are occurring at the very time the Soviet Union has been shifting into a larger diplomatic role in the Gulf, Middle East, and elsewhere.

The irony is that Congress has its own, sometimes expensive views of how the State Department ought to be run. The Voice of America, for instance, has been ordered to increase broadcasting in Slovenian in a bow to a senator from Ohio. The Senate attached no less than 84 amendments to the foreign affairs authorization bill. ``Quite some sausagemaking,'' as North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, the sponsor of many of them, remarked at the time. The measures, a pork-barreling of sorts, reflect the frustration of a branch of government that would like to be conducting foreign policy as well as just providing the money for it.

But Congress needs to get the money job better in hand. US lawmakers have every right to cut the deficit wherever they deem it wise. But they should not be allowed to go for an easy target that evokes no squawk and where the amount in question is peanuts compared with almost any other example of government spending. The State Department's cut amounts to half the price of a B-1 bomber, one month of US flagged tanker protection in the Gulf, or one year's worth of photocopying in the Pentagon. The long-range interests of the US demand that Congress shuffle its priorities and put the small expenses of diplomacy and foreign aid up near the top of its list.

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