By some lights, George S. Dunlop just might have the best job in town: status and a fancy title, office with a view, $77,500 annual salary, budget of $416,000 . . . and very little to do.
Dunlop doesn't like it a bit, actually, but he is in the unhappy position of having been caught square in the sights of the fiscal elephant gun that Rep. Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.) occasionally fires at the Agriculture Department.
Whitten fired again last month and Dunlop took the hit. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee abolished Dunlop's job as assistant secretary for natural resources and environment.
Whitten was angry and fed up at the almost constant haggling between Congress and the administration over soil conservation budgets. Whitten and Congress have insisted that the Agriculture Department spend appropriated money; the White House keeps trying to cut the conservation account.
And since Whitten obviously could not abolish the presidency, whence come the orders to withhold funds, or the secretary of agriculture, he went for the next best target: George Dunlop, overseer of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) and the U.S. Forest Service.
At Whitten's behest, the House voted to eliminate Dunlop's assistant secretaryship and ordered that he keep his hands off the conservation programs. But the Senate, where Dunlop has friends from his days as staff director of the Agriculture Committee, took no action.
When House and Senate appropriations conferees met last month to work out differences in the two farm spending bills, they stayed split over this and several other issues for days and Whitten would not relent.
As the stalemate dragged on, Whitten finally agreed to a "compromise." There would be no more assistant secretary for natural resources and environment. But Congress would create a new assistant secretary for special services to which Secretary Richard E. Lyng could appoint Dunlop.
Supervision of the SCS and the Forest Service was transferred to Lyng; Dunlop was barred from dealing in a supervisory way with either agency, but his new slot would carry the $416,000 appropriation his previous activities got.
Lyng, Dunlop and others at the Agriculture Department now are trying to make the best of a confusing situation. Dunlop, trying to figure out exactly what "special services" is, said, "We're trying to do all we can to mitigate the adverse impacts of the congressional directive."
Dunlop said the Whitten-engineered change in his life had altered his holiday plans. "Now I've been forced to deal with the technical aspects of how an assistant secretary for special services operates."
But not to worry. Dunlop said there are "whole lots of other things that assistant secretaries do . . . providing analysis, planning, giving advice and counsel to the secretary. I will continue to advise the secretary on environmental matters. I just have to be careful that any soil or forest activity in which I am engaged is not supervision."
As for the contretemps with Whitten, there are no apparent hard feelings. "Our fundamental policy disagreement remains," Dunlop said. "He objects to our budgets . . . but I can't take that personally . . . . Chairman Whitten has used his power and authority in an area in which he feels very strongly."
In other words, that's a big 10-4, Mr. Chairman. Message copied loud and clear.