A pol sets out to de-politicize the Commerce Department


WASHINGTON -- Just a year ago, a routine U.S. trade mission to Croatia led by Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown ended in disaster when his plane crashed, killing him and 34 others, including prominent American businessmen.

The episode focused a spotlight on the government's policy of joining in partnership with the U.S. private sector to generate more profitable business relationships with trading partners abroad. It was a policy that existed well before Brown's tenure as secretary, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, but was aggressively intensified by him.

In the wake of the deep involvement of former Commerce Department political appointee John Huang in the morass of excessive 1996 Democratic campaign-contribution solicitations, such missions came under much greater scrutiny.

Republicans on Capitol Hill complained that under Brown the department played heavy politics in the selection of friendly business executives to make the trips with him. Such criticism inevitably continued with President Clinton's appointment as secretary of commerce of William Daley, son of the legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago and brother and chief political DTC confidant of the current mayor, Richard M. Daley.

The Daley name is synonymous with the game of politics and to Republicans Bill Daley's appointment to head the department they see as excessively politicized was like putting a fox in the chicken coop. But Mr. Daley, to blunt the criticism, ordered a 30-day moratorium on U.S. trade missions abroad.

New guidelines

He had new guidelines issued for choosing businessmen to go on them, barring political considerations -- such as past contributions and partisan political activity -- from the selection process. The final choices are to be made by a Commerce panel consisting of more career employees than political appointees, with no veto by Mr. Daley.

The process, and Secretary Daley himself, will get their first test in public perception next month when he leads his first trip abroad since the end of the moratorium, to Brazil, Argentina and Chile. His main concern, he says, is that important businessmen may shy away from participating, out of fear of negative publicity. He says he can't guarantee that the day the list of those selected is made public, the press won't find past contributors on it. But he insists that such background will not have been weighed in their choice.

Mr. Daley has little experience in Latin American trade, but he headed President Clinton's White House task force that won congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Because of the focus on how Clinton and Co. used government and White House perks to lure campaign money, plus his own background as a political operative, the policy side of Mr. Daley's trip probably will get much less attention than the political.

The challenge he faces to demonstrate that he can function in a nonpartisan fashion at the Commerce Department parallels the test that confronted his brother in 1989 upon taking over the Chicago mayoralty that their father once held with an iron, partisan grip.

The current Mayor Daley surprised supporters and confounded critics by eschewing partisanship and courting the city's politically active black community, previously hostile to his father. In 1991, he was re-elected with 71 percent of the vote and was credited with erasing a major blot on the city's reputation by bringing the Democratic National Convention back for the first time since 1968, when riots erupted under his father's regime.

Bill Daley scoffs at the notion that he can somehow shake his own longtime image as a politician. But his overt efforts to depoliticize the Commerce Department on the matter of these foreign trade missions give him the opportunity, at least, to show he can function in a nonpartisan way in his new job.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/09/97

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