Daley Mindful of Baggage On First Overseas Mission
By Paul Blustein
Commerce Secretary William M. Daley, who has vowed to cleanse his department and its trade-promotion activities of partisan taint, leaves today for Latin America on his first overseas trade mission.
Reflecting the political difficulties, the trip will feature a considerably less splashy style and less high-powered business delegation than missions led by Daley's predecessor, Ronald H. Brown.
At a briefing for reporters yesterday, Daley said the trip to Brazil, Argentina and Chile sends a message that the Clinton administration will continue to "advocate forcefully" on behalf of U.S. firms seeking export opportunities.
But the trip also shows how the department's efforts to support U.S. business abroad have been hobbled by allegations that during Brown's tenure, trade missions and other departmental activities were used to reward business executives who contributed to the Democratic Party.
The list of 31 business executives accompanying Daley differs markedly from the business delegations that typically accompanied Brown, who died in a plane crash on a mission to Bosnia last year.
Whereas Brown made a point of bringing chief executives on his missions often CEOs of the nation's biggest multinationals Daley's delegation includes mostly vice presidents and heads of Latin American operations from big companies, plus a smattering of CEOs from small and mid-sized firms.
Sources familiar with the selection process said Commerce Department officials found it difficult to recruit top-level executives in part because of fears in the corporate community that participation in the mission would generate unfavorable scrutiny.
Moreover, Daley and his entourage are traveling by commercial jet, rather than on the military planes emblazoned with "The United States of America" that Brown favored. The Commerce Department also sent a five-person advance team for Daley's trip much smaller than the teams that used to precede Brown, according to department officials.
Although Daley maintained that he is "extremely happy" with the business delegation, the lower-key nature of the mission underscores how the department is being forced to scale back the "commercial diplomacy" that Brown ardently championed.
"What we're seeing is the effects of a couple of years of political battles, and clearly it's hurt," said David J. Rothkopf, a former deputy undersecretary for international trade who played a key role in the strategy behind Brown's trade missions.
"They [Commerce Department] were thrown off the horse, and it's good they're getting back in the saddle again," Rothkopf added.
"Obviously, the higher level the delegation that goes on a trade mission, the more likely it is to be effective. But there will be no recovery without efforts like this, and you have to begin someplace."
Daley's trip is the first to be organized under new rules that he implemented to ward off any suspicion of political favoritism. Corporate participants were selected by committees of department employees, of which a majority were career staff presumed to be free of partisan taint.
Daley disputed suggestions that corporate desire to join the mission was low, asserting: "We were surprised at the interest in the applications" to attend. "You may not be seeing the usual suspects from major companies, but we have real decision-makers, from companies like Bell South, Raytheon, Motorola and Enron," he said.
"I think it's a very good mix. CEOs are obviously important people in their companies, and secretaries are important people in their departments. But they don't make all the decisions."
Daley, whose department has been targeted for elimination by congressional Republicans, said he had chosen to fly commercial because "this is a very charged climate, and we're obviously trying to watch our costs."
Asked whether the decision was related to the fact that Brown was killed on a military plane, Daley scoffed, asserting that he was motivated solely by economic considerations.
Referring indirectly to Brown's preference for high-profile missions, Daley said: "Everybody's got a different style. I'm not saying one's better than the other. It's just different. I think this will be a very successful trip."
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