Wide-Ranging Lobbying Saves `Radio Free' Programs

THE policymaking process was convoluted and drawn-out. Special interests heavily influenced the outcome. But in the end President Clinton made a decision widely hailed as a fair compromise.

The decision in question was not the budget or a Supreme Court nominee, but a little-noticed announcement that will shape the future of United States international broadcasting for years to come.

Earlier this week, President Clinton declared that he wants to keep Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) independent of US editorial control, but merge some of their technical functions with the US Information Agency's Voice of America (VOA). He also said he wants to create a new Asian Democracy Radio (ADR) to broadcast to China. And Mr. Clinton called for a new Board of Governors to guarantee the editorial independence not only of these radio stations but also of VOA.

This represents a significant change from the president's February budget, which called for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to be phased out and left open the question of whether ADR would become part of the VOA. Top administration officials, then new to office, barely noticed the move. It was made by analysts at the Office of Management and Budget, who saw phasing out RFE/RL's $250 million budget as a sensible deficit-fighting step.

What the numbers-crunchers didn't count on was one of the most unusual, and effective, lobbying campaigns Washington has seen in recent years. The chief advocates for the radio stations are current and former members of the Board of International Broadcasting, which oversees their operations. The board's all-star lineup has included union leader Lane Kirkland, columnist Ben Wattenberg, author James Mitchener, and publisher Steve Forbes.

"We have no self-interest in preserving the radios," Mr. Wattenberg says. "But many of us came to understand that these radios are really important items in our democratic arsenal."

The board members produced a stream of editorials and phone calls, and recruited other supporters, from columnist George Will to Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware. Perhaps the most effective advocates were foreign leaders such as Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who declared that the stations are essential for nurturing democracy in Eastern Europe. To get that message out, Freedom House, a human-rights watch-dog group, placed advertisements in several publications.

ON the other side of the issue were the State Department and the US Information Agency, which have an institutional interest in minimizing the radios' budget to preserve funding for their own programs. But the agencies were handicapped because, until recently, few Clinton appointees were confirmed and career employees are prohibited from lobbying.

The leader of the anti-RFE/RL campaign became Tom Korologos, a Republican lobbyist who heads the USIA's Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. He argued that the stations are unnecessary since Eastern Europe has gone democratic and the US is friendly with China. But he admits he had a hard time making that case with much of the "foreign policy establishment" arrayed against him.

"The lobbying [on behalf of the stations] certainly played a role in the debate," admits a senior administration official. The White House began to back off the original decision by setting up an inter-agency task force to review the issue. But the task force proved too large and unwieldy. So Dan Mica, a former congressmen who heads the Board on International Broadcasting, decided to open direct negotiations with Joseph Duffy, who by then had been nominated to run USIA.

Two weeks ago, they took an interim solution to President Clinton, who asked for some minor changes. They handed the revised version to the president last weekend, and he signed off on it.

Both sides get something: Opponents are gratified by about $250 million in cost-savings from consolidations, while supporters are happy to see the stations preserve their independence.

"It's a real administration achievement in reinventing government," says a Senate staff member. "They've got some budget savings, reorganized existing institutions, and preserved the best of all of them."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Wide-Ranging Lobbying Saves `Radio Free' Programs
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today