"Craziest one I've ever seen . . . unprecedented in my experience . . . dumb--but also dangerous . . . not the way you're supposed to run a government . . . a pain in the neck."
Those are random excerpts from recent conversations with old hands at the State Department, some of them career holdovers, some new Reagan appointees. What's got them so exercised is the mockery, not to say shambles, that's being made of the constitutional confirmation process by which the Senate is supposed to give (or deny) its blessing to presidential appointees for the State Department's most important policy-making posts.
Here we are, well into April with Congress off on a two-week Easter recess, and only a handful of Secretary of State Alexander Haig's helpmates have been confirmed. Last week three of the most important "geographic" assistant secretaries, Lawrence Eagleburger (Europe), Nicholas Veliotes (Mideast) and Chester Crocker (Africa) were actually on overseas assignments, supposedly representing the U.S. government--but without senatorial portfolio.
State's top economic officials, undersecretary-designate Meyer Rashish, whose nomination papers just recently reached the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he's been working "12 hours a day since January 20," shaping new administration policy, though his confirmation hearings won't be held until after the recess. Central America is Haig's highest priority, and his choice for assistant secretary for that part of the world, Thomas Enders, is physically installed in his precedessor's office grappling with, among other things, the red-hot issue of El Salvador.
Yet Ender's designation by the White House, as of a few days ago, had not ever been announced. A joke around the department is that he is the "assistant secretary-suspect."
What's the hang-up?
Haig himself was lightning-quick off the mark in picking his team. While holding him blameless, the scapegoaters an finger-pointers have no end of other targets: endless FBI security checks; mountainous paper work, complicated by meticulous new conflict-of-interest tests imposed not only by the executive branch but by the Senate committee as well; White House bottlenecks, clogged by the complaints of the Reagan "kitchen cabinet" that Haig's choices were insufficiently dedicated to the pure Reagan view of the world.
But the real villain of the piece is to be found, ironically, on the Republican side of the Foreign Relations Committee--newly under Republican control. The one-man wrecking crew is Sen. Jesse Helms, the amiable-looking arch-conservative from North Carolina who has somehow taken into his head that if he isn't secretary of state he ought to be. s
It is Helms's further fancy that whatever foreign-policy mandate Ronald Reagan received in last November's vote, it did not include a grant of authority to pick his own foreign policy-making team without the particular advice and consent of Jesse Helms. And so, from the outset, as the Haig/Reagan choices were first flight-tested in unofficial public disclosures and then formally announced, Helms has been waging what one Senate committee source describes as a "calculated campaign of brow-beating, harassments, threats and delays."
The result, as one Democratic committee member puts it, hass been a "sort of guerrilla war between Helms and not only the White House but the committee as well." One effect was to delay final White House submission to the Senate of candidates objectionable to Helms--which included Eagleburger (too close to Kissinger), Crocker (too sympathetic to Black Africa), the Asian assistant secretary, John Holdridge (soft on Peking) and to a lesser degree just about all the rest of Haig's list.
The bargaining, one hears, was intense. Its consequences, one suspects, may well be reflected in further appointments down the line (ambassadorships, for example) or perhaps in future policy concessions to Helms. But by far the most serious consequence has been not only in the disruption of the confirmation process but also in the appearance conveyed of Helms's extraordinary, single-handed capacity to obstruct.
Even though the administration has finally forwarded most of the more controversial nominations to the committee, one staff member estimates "we may well be still dealing with State Department appointments well into June, or even July."
What worries administration officials is what this says about the future ability of the leadership of the Foreign Relations Committee to deal with Jesse Helms. One thing it may say is that the administration will find itself forced to turn increasingly for help from committee Democrats. When Helms was badering Reagan's man Crocker the other day, and forcing a delay of his confirmation until his return from Africa, it was Democrat Alan Cranston who lodged the loudest protest.
"I think it harms American foreign policy to you go abroad without confirmation," he declared. "The fault lies here in the Senate," he added, staring hard at Jesse Helms.