Economic Council Needs More Study

PRESIDENT-ELECT Clinton has proposed that policymaking on international trade and economic issues be given greater weight in White House organization, possibly through the establishment of an Economic Security Council.

Administrations in the past have dealt with economic-policy making in various ways: through interagency committees at the cabinet and sub-cabinet levels, through the Council of Economic Advisers, and through special working groups for economic summits. None has been totally successful in integrating political and security concerns with economic interests. At least two problems have arisen when efforts were made to do so. How do you balance the multitude of domestic pressures and interests involved in suc h policymaking with foreign and diplomatic considerations? How do you determine what is political or strategic and what is economic? The answer to the latter question has been increasingly difficult. Is, for example, the promotion of democracy in the former states of the Soviet Union through greater aid, advice, and investment a political or an economic issue?

The president-elect appears to envision a counterpart to the National Security Council (NSC) structure, presumably involving an assistant to the president for economic security affairs and a staff. If that is what the new administration has in mind, it runs serious risks of complicating the policymaking machinery.

Such a plan would establish a bureaucratic unit interposed between major cabinet officers, such as the secretaries of treasury and commerce, and the president. The president would risk being isolated from officials whom foreign representatives regard as responsible for major policy advice.

Presumably, a new assistant to the president for economic security affairs would, like the NSC counterpart, not be subject to Senate confirmation. In an administration that wishes to cement a new relationship with the Congress, this could be a source of friction. The creation of another major unit within the executive office structure would run counter to Mr. Clinton's intention to cut the White House staff. It would also create a competitor for the president's time and attention with the high risk of op en, politically damaging rivalry between the NSC staff and the Economic Security staff.

The NSC staff system has worked well when its responsibilities were largely those of coordinating recommendations of cabinet departments. When the NSC advisers, through their personalities or presidential inclination, became significant policy, public, and diplomatic figures, the result was confusion and tension. The power and authority of cabinet officials and especially the secretary of state was diminished. Foreign officials, members of Congress, and the public listened to multiple voices and had diff iculty determining who was "in charge." The creation of an economic counterpart similarly inclined to garner decisionmaking power into his or her part of the White House would compound the risk of similar problems in a Clinton administration.

A president has it within his power to reduce the risk of such an outcome through two measures. He could take advantage of the National Security Act of 1947 and add to the membership of the NSC (as distinguished from the NSC staff) the secretaries of the treasury, agriculture, and commerce. He could, in addition, appoint an assistant to the president for national security affairs who has knowledge of economic as well as political affairs and bolster the NSC staff with economic expertise.

The growing economic component in foreign and security policy issues would make both steps logical. In such an event, the president must make clear that he sees the role of the assistant to the president and of the expanded unit not as an initiator of policy, but a coordinator, bringing together for presentation to him the views of the executive departments and agencies.

The line between the political and the economic in international affairs is thin and growing thinner. The Clinton administration would be wise to coordinate policy for both within a single unit. Any other arrangement risks the competition within the executive that has been costly to administrations in the past.

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