Deep partisan divisions in Washington yield instantly in the face of real threats to our nation's well being -- threats such as the State Department. For several years now, majorities in both houses of Congress have made clear their belief that a decently funded diplomatic establishment, with a well-run career Foreign Service is a risk the nation cannot afford to face.
These, at least, are the only logical inferences that can be drawn from the actions Congress has taken. While the department's security budget has increased in recent years, over the past three fiscal years Congress has cut the president's requests for the department by $160 million. In addition to these reductions in funding for salary and expenses, the department has lost approximately $150 million in purchasing power due to exchange rate losses and unbudgeted overseas inflation.
In response to an anticipated $84-120 million shortfall for fiscal year 1988, the department has announced it will be forced to eliminate 1,270 positions, close 13 consulates and two more embassies and severely cut into its ability to handle economic issues.
Simultaneously, Congress has piled on additional burdens: incredible, repetitive, onerous reporting requirements, for example, that turn some of the best young Foreign Service officers into clerks doing make-work. Another example: when a new issue (e.g. communications!) rises into view on the Hill, a typical reaction is to throw not money but an office at it. State is given no additional resources, nor are realistic performance standards set; instead, Congress just directs the department to open a new bureau -- with utter disregard for current bureau structure, availability of people or need.
A final example, from a sister agency: the Voice of America has just been ordered to increase broadcasting in Slovenian. Why? Let's be honest: Sen. Metzenbaum, author of the amendment which accomplishes this, is from Ohio, and some of his constituents will be gratified. Neither Metzenbaum nor the Senate showed any concern whatsoever as to whether this was an efficient use of resources, whether there were enough VOA resources to do this additional job, whether there were lots of Slovenians out there who needed and wanted the additional hours. It is a case study. Did anyone ask if instead we really need more Creole broadcasting to Haiti, or more Ukrainian, or some Tibetan?
Now, there is much to complain about at State, and changes are needed. To take an example from my area, the State Department has very little expertise on either Brazil or Mexico, and no serious program to create any. The constant shift of officers among bureaus and desks means generalists are available, with excellent skills, but country expertise is often paper thin. And after nearly seven years at Foggy Bottom, I do find one "deformation professionelle": an inordinate wish for smooth relations as a valuable goal, when in fact confrontation is in many cases -- on political, or trade, or security issues -- more appropriate.
But Congress is not addressing these faults, or any others; it is simply wrecking. Members who want negotiations in Central America join those who distrust them; members who applaud our recent arms agreement with the Soviets join those who condemn it; members who want State to push harder on Afghanistan ally with others who want more time spent on MIAs or trade issues. And the net product of their work is to slash the department's budget, cut into the ability of the Foreign Service to retain its best people, force the closing of missions overseas.
During his recent visit to Brazil, Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze and the Brazilians announced the opening of a new Soviet consulate in Rio. This hit those of us in the Latin America bureau sharply, as we are now looking around at which consulate in Brazil, or Mexico, we must close to accomplish the budget cuts Congress has just imposed. Is this really in the national interest? Is the departure of some of the best young officers really advantageous for us? Does it really promote our security to turn State into the concierge of the foreign affairs community, running embassy buildings which are filled with officials of agencies from Agriculture to IRS to FBI, but devoid of political analysts?
Let's ask the next congressional delegation going overseas, as members of Congress cut everything but their own travel budgets. Right now, every assistant secretary sees what I do: missions cut further and further back, but forced to spend endless man-hours shepherding members around to and from hotels and shopping centers. And let us be clear: for every Charlie Rangel who is willing to make a serious visit to a place like La Paz or Bogota to talk about drugs, there are 10 others who need to see Paris or Rome or Jerusalem.
The product is disillusioned American diplomats who want to help their country increase exports and stop drug traffic and aid freedom fighters, assigned instead in the "attractive" posts to finding a room with a double bed, or a golf course that admits nonmembers. In the "unattractive" or dangerous posts, they won't see much of congressmen or senators, but Congress is thinking of them: the Senate just capped ambassadors' pay, for example, so that career ambassadors who deserve danger pay in a Beirut or a Bogota can't get it.
When the next crisis strikes, let no one go to the House or Senate floor and ask, how did this happen? Why couldn't we avoid this? Why didn't we know sooner? The answer in part, will be that in the 1980s Congress decided that having a foreign ministry was an Old World practice too dangerous for us. Few will notice, and fewer still are much saddened. But in the end, we are making the world a more dangerous place for ourselves and our allies, and in the end we will regret it. The writer is assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.