Monte Carlo? Go ahead!


The Fairmont Monte Carlo is expensive, yes, but check out the Mediterranean views from the deck of its Horizon restaurant. (Fairmont Hotel & Resorts)
Al Kamen
Columnist June 14, 2012

Haven’t made any plans for the Fourth? Want to serve your country in style?

Then sign up immediately to join a codel — congressional delegation — headed to lovely Monaco to attend the yearly parliamentary conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, July 5 to 9.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

In years past, a dozen or so lawmakers would attend. But that’s dropped off. This year, no senators and no more than two House members are going — the attendees are Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), who chairs the House commission that coordinates OSCE matters, and perhaps commission member Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.), along with up to four aides.

So why aren’t more U.S. lawmakers going?

“The Americans are not coming,” OSCE Secretary General R. Spencer Oliver said when we returned his call from his office in Copenhagen, “because they are afraid of you.”

Moi? That’s ridiculous.

But Oliver — yes, Richard Nixon bugged his Watergate office phone 40 years ago when he was chairman of the Association of Democratic State Chairmen — called us to insist it was so.

Word got out a couple of weeks ago that we were looking into the trip, he said, and “people who were saying they might be coming all dropped out. . . . They are not coming because of you.”

Sparse turnout presents a grave problem: Only one or two members means no military jet. No miljet means spouses won’t go. (They can tag along at no charge as long as it’s “no expense to the government.”)

By way of background, the 55-nation OSCE is not nearly as well known or as important to U.S. policy as, say, NATO or the European Union. Some dismiss it as just another Euro-gabfest.

But it is nonetheless a real player in promoting democratic reforms and human rights, overseeing elections, and other matters, especially in Eastern Europe and most especially in the 11 new democracies (and not-quite-democracies) that were once part of the Soviet Union. (The OSCE began during the Bush I era as a way to deal with the implications of the Soviet breakup.)

“This is not a boondoggle,” Oliver said. “These guys come and work.”

In which case, no need to worry about voter anger at going in these tight budget times to a meeting on the French Riviera.

Why spectacular gambling mecca Monaco, at three-quarters of a square mile the second-smallest country in the world (the smallest is the Vatican), population 36,000?

Because the venue rotates among the members and “it was Monaco’s turn,” Oliver explained.

Of course, some voters might be put off by the accommodations that we hear are being arranged at the spectacular Fairmont Monte Carlo.

The cheapest rooms run around $600 a night, but we hear the resort is offering a special rate of around $400 or even less. Still, that’s nearly $100 more than the State Department’s total per diem rate for Monaco.

Oh, wait! Looks as though the State Department just the other day bumped the rate to $634 a day — higher than Tokyo, London, Rome or Paris. So you’re all set.

Then there’s the usual government “control room” and a “control officer” to properly schedule your stay and a cashier to take care of any monetary concerns.

So please, please sign up. There are obvious benefits to U.S. lawmakers mingling with lawmakers from other countries.

Did we mention the breathtaking views of the Mediterranean?

The Commerce curse

Anyone eyeing the Cabinet post that might be vacated if Commerce Secretary John Bryson’s temporary leave of absence becomes a permanent one might want to think twice.

It seems there’s a bit of a curse attached to the position — and Bryson, who this week suffered a seizure behind the wheel, leading to three traffic accidents — isn’t the only commerce secretary upon whom misfortune has fallen. A look back at commerce secretaries of yore reveals a preponderance of bad luck and controversy.

To wit:

Ron Brown, who held the job under President Bill Clinton, was 56 years old in 1996 when the plane carrying him and 34 other people on an official trade mission crashed in Croatia. Brown, we should note, was the subject at the time of an independent counsel investigation into his failure to pay taxes on business income.

Howard Malcolm “Mac” Baldrige Jr., who served in the Ronald Reagan administration, also met an untimely end. Baldrige, who had been on the rodeo circuit as a young man, died when a horse he was riding fell and crushed him (doctors said the sharp belt buckle he was wearing contributed to the fatal injury).

Before he was chief of staff to President Obama, William M. Daley served as commerce secretary under Clinton — and he suffered an embarrassing public episode in 1996. Daley passed out (in full view of C-SPAN cameras) during a White House news conference announcing his appointment.

As fellow Clinton appointee Bill Richardson spoke, a very pale Daley blinked, looking uncomfortable, and then crumpled to the floor. Vice President Al Gore helped him offstage, while the president reassured reporters that it seemed he was okay. (Was it something Richardson said?)

And it’s not just health problems that have plagued commerce secretaries. Nixon appointee Maurice Stans was thought to be the bagman for the money that funded that little Watergate break-in. Stans was indicted in 1973 on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury but was acquitted in 1974.

Tragedies and scandal aside, there’s the Commerce Department’s status as something approximating the Cabinet’s broom closet. The agency has long been criticized for having a too-sprawling (i.e., vague) mission and for being a haven for political patronage.

In the George H.W. Bush years, it was jokingly referred to as “Bush Gardens.” Even Robert Mosbacher, the commerce secretary in that administration, called the agency “nothing better than a hall closet where you throw in everything that you don’t know what to do with.”

Aponte-d!

The Senate voted 62 to 37 on Thursday to break a Republican filibuster and confirm Obama nominee Mari Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador.

Aponte had served as ambassador there for 15 months after the president gave her a temporary recess appointment to the job. But Republicans, citing concerns that her long-ago boyfriend was a Cuban spy and an op-ed she wrote last summer supporting gay rights, blocked her from serving after that appointment expired at the end of last year.

Talks at that time between Senate Democrats and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in December to break the filibuster proved fruitless, ending in bitter recriminations on both sides.

Nine Republican senators voted Thursday to end the filibuster: Rubio, Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe (Maine), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Richard Lugar (Ind.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). Ayotte, Lugar, McCain, Murkowski, Rubio and Snowe voted against breaking the filibuster last time.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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