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Sunday, December 29, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Political Appointees Are Filling The Halls Of Commerce Dept. -- Many Think Agency Should Be Abolished

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - The stated mission of the Commerce Department is as straightforward as its name: to "encourage, serve and promote" American business.

Still, some members of Congress are so disgusted with the Commerce Department that they want to shut it down. One of its former secretaries says it has no reason for being. Even a former senior Clinton appointee at Commerce concedes the agency has become a "dumping ground" for people owed jobs by the White House for their political help.

At last count, the Clinton administration had tucked away 196 political appointees there. The near-record number might have gone unnoticed but for one name on the payroll: Clinton fund-raiser John Huang, now at the center of the Democrats' foreign-contributions scandal.

Huang's notoriety already has caused the administration nearly as much embarrassment as the Whitewater affair. That's sure to grow through a spring of Republican-controlled congressional hearings, and to cast a harsh, new light on a department of elaborate political titles, generous salaries and sometimes embarrassing behavior.

Trading candor for anonymity, the Clinton appointee who found the department a "dumping ground," describes it as, generally, a niche "where the White House can put people they want to reward but where they can't do much damage."

That's one reason House Republicans voted last year to shut down the department and transfer its important duties, such as weather

forecasting and conducting the census, to other agencies. The Senate didn't follow suit, but congressional hostility toward the department remains high, and Commerce Secretary nominee William Daley will feel it upon arrival, even as he steps into the department's thicket of political hires.

Commerce's patronage machine has grown sharply in recent years. In 1960, it only took nine appointees, ranked deputy-assistant secretary or higher, to run the department. Today, the department has 60 appointees of that rank, but the same number of employees, about 31,000.

Some of those people are distinguished public servants, but that still doesn't explain all the numbers. One small unit of Commerce, the International Trade Administration, has 23 people with the rank of deputy- assistant secretary or higher. That's more appointees than are on the staff of the secretary of the Army or at the Interior Department.

A deputy-assistant secretary earns $96,000 a year and, in Washington, D.C., protocol, enjoys the rank of a one-star general.

Patronage hires come to their jobs from many directions. One highly regarded patronage appointee is the sister of Chelsea Clinton's Little Rock pediatrician. Another managed the "Saxophone Club" for young Clinton-Gore donors in 1992. One is the husband of a high-ranking White House aide. Several are Democrats who lost elections.

The caprice of patronage hiring takes its toll on the department's mission and continuity of effort, and on career civil servants. Particularly unfortunate, says a former political resume-sorter at Commerce, are situations where "you've got a must-hire balloon-blower from the campaign, and people with 25 years of expertise have got to report to the balloon-blower."

In vague work such as trade promotion, a mission shared with 19 other federal agencies and a sideline even at Commerce, patronage appointees abound. But they rarely get involved in Commerce's real action, which in budget terms lies elsewhere, in weather forecasting, managing fisheries, census taking and assorted other jobs that ended up there by accident.

Former Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, who ought to know, dismisses the department as "nothing better than a hall closet where you throw in everything that you don't know what to do with." He'd abolish the Commerce Department - now. While serving in President George Bush's administration, however, Mosbacher found room for even more patronage hires than the current department - 205. The place became known as "Bush Gardens."

Patronage politics, a tradition that began with Andrew Jackson in 1828, can be seen in a kinder light. "These people are the personification of the electoral mandate of the president," says Charles Untermeyer, the Bush White House's personnel chief.

Argues Robert Stein, who oversaw most political hires for the late Ron Brown, Clinton's first commerce secretary: "The only way the government can have any hope of from time to time being vibrant is by infusions of new people with high energy, new ideas and a consistent agenda."

Uncertain results of trips

Just how much the Commerce Department accomplishes for U.S. business is unclear; CEOs surveyed by Business Week in 1995 said 2-to-1 that if it were abolished they wouldn't miss it. Nonetheless, it's widely acknowledged that Brown unified and rallied U.S. trade-promotion efforts with a series of barnstorming, multibillion-dollar contract-signing trips to overseas markets.

Because about a third of the CEOs he took along were Democratic contributors, Brown's missions were attacked as political payoffs. And some of the contracts signed never turned into real business. They ended, in any event, with Brown's death in a plane crash while on a trade mission to Bosnia last April.

His successor, Mickey Kantor, found Brown's high-energy international trade act impossible to follow, so U.S. exporters today must rely only on part-time help from 20 disjointed agencies. Meanwhile, their British, French, Canadian, Japanese and German competitors all are served by powerful, permanent trade ministries, none overseen by more than a handful of political appointees.

Even top trade-promotion officials at Commerce aren't necessarily trade experts, however. Ray Vickery, for example, the assistant secretary for trade development, is a Virginia lawyer and former state legislator best known for losing to Republican U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf.

Another top appointee, Assistant Secretary Lauri Fitz-Pegado, head of the International Trade Association's U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service, is a former public-relations ally of Brown's from the days when both represented Haiti's Duvalier government in Washington.

A third, Nancy Patton, deputy assistant secretary for Asia-Pacific trade, is a former IBM marketing executive who received help from her old boss, then-House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., in getting her appointment.

Patronage payroll swells

Because every assistant secretary needs deputies, and every deputy needs advisers, aides and special assistants, the patronage payroll has steadily swelled. Today, the department's 196 political hires earn an average of $75,675 and add up to a patronage payroll of $15 million.

Congress has a piece of the action, too. Rep. Dick Chrysler, a plain-spoken freshman Republican from Michigan, learned that when he investigated the Commerce Department in the last session of Congress. He quickly concluded that it was "an out-of-touch, out-of-date, self-perpetuating agency that is geared more towards politics and preserving itself than toward serving the American people who foot the bill."

So Chrysler, who failed to win re-election this fall, and the House GOP voted last year to do away with it. The Senate never voted on the question, however, partly because the department also provides lots of patronage jobs and pork for Capitol Hill.

Democrats get most of the favors these days, of course. Take Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., a House Appropriations subcommittee member. After Mollohan helped former aide Susan Bobbitt win a job at Commerce as assistant secretary for legislation, Bobbitt got the International Trade Association to open a second export-promotion office two years ago in West Virginia.

Does the state really need offices in Charleston and in Wheeling, Mollohan's district? Probably not. Asked for their greatest success stories, directors of both offices named the same aviation-equipment company in Morgantown.

Before the Reagan administration, Cabinet secretaries mostly picked their own top people. Since then, they've had to haggle with the White House. Brown, for example, wanted appointees loyal to him. The White House wanted to fill the jobs with Clinton-Gore campaign workers and personal friends.

Brown's strategy, aides say, was to trade away lower jobs in order to focus on quality in the top 25. Often, Capitol Hill powers like Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., then chairman of the Commerce Committee, also would urge candidates on Brown.

Then, the resume-sorter recalls, "Brown would say, `Mr. Chairman, I assure you we will give him every consideration.' " That's how former Hollings aide Troy Cribb found work as deputy-assistant secretary of commerce for textiles, apparel and consumer goods.

Bloated empires

A look at Commerce's political hires since then reveals four clear patterns:

-- Some big divisions, like the Patent and Trademark Office and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, remain almost off-limits to political appointees. "The more technically demanding an agency's work," explains Ronald Moe, a government specialist at the Library of Congress, "the more likely the career fraternity can protect its mission."

-- Other jobs have come to be reserved for patronage hires. For example, the department did not have a press spokesman in 1960 who was a political appointee. Today the top 12 press aides are. Two career bureaucrats handled relations with Congress in 1960. Now 21 political appointees try to. Export promotion in 1960 was limited to mounting trade fairs. Now it's an empire.

-- It takes more appointees to do things. Dramatic example: Eight aides did overseas advance work before a three-city export-promotion trip to China in 1992 by Brown's predecessor, Barbara Franklin. Advancing Brown's 1994 four-city China trip took 30 aides. Franklin's team was gone a week; Brown's, two.

-- Typically, new forms of patronage start in the secretary's office and are mimicked at lower bureaucratic levels. Over time, assistant secretaries have grown a phalanx of deputies, a legislative specialist and assistants special and confidential. Once political slots are created, they're rarely given up.

Recent growth among patronage hires has been headiest in the secretary's office. In 1992, the secretary's immediate staff totaled 17. Today, it's more than 30, including schedulers and schedule coordinators, a protocol officer, a personal lawyer, two speech writers, even a speech editor.

There's even an assistant to the secretary and director of the Office of Political and Strategic Planning. It's a job better understood, perhaps, by knowing that the first person to hold it was John Sallet. He's a former Gore staffer who is the son in law of deputy Clinton campaign manager Ann Lewis, whose brother is Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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