Washington at its worst
1/9/2002 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- President Bush is set this week to authorize the executive branch's ultimate weapon against Senate obstructionism: the recess appointment. With Congress in recess, he plans to renominate Otto Reich as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. That will permit Reich to serve the next two years without confirmation by the Senate.
Reich and Eugene Scalia, the president's nominee for Labor Department solicitor, are the familiar names on a limited list of recess appointments scheduled to be signed off by Bush Thursday. Scalia definitely commands a majority in the Senate, and Reich probably does. But Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has amended the Constitution to decree that "controversial" confirmations require the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster, though in fact neither nomination has been brought to the Senate floor.
The qualifications of Scalia and Reich are beyond serious challenge. The animus against Scalia can be explained in vindictiveness against his father, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and AFL-CIO opposition to his stand on ergonomics. The case against Reich is less focused and more poisonous. The treatment of Otto Reich is Washington at its worst -- arrogant Senate staffers pursuing an ideological vendetta for two decades.
Unlike Scalia (whose nomination has been voted out of committee), Reich has not even been given a hearing. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden shrugs and says it's up to the Western Hemisphere subcommittee chairman, Sen. Christopher Dodd. When White House operatives tried to secure a hearing for Reich, the normally amiable Dodd flared up and declared he did not want to talk about it.
It is common knowledge in the Senate that Dodd has ceded responsibility to Janice O'Connell, his longtime foreign relations aide. O'Connell is one of the anonymous senior congressional staffers who dictate policy -- in her case, Latin America policy. She has spawned a collection of scalps of diplomats who do not conform to her left-of-center ideology. For example, the estimable Foreign Service professional Michael Kozak, now ambassador to Belarus, was blocked by O'Connell from the Panama portfolio.
Dodd and O'Connell have spent months opposing Reich on the basis of a disputed General Accounting Office (GAO) report that Reich in 1985, heading the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America, ran a "prohibited covert propaganda campaign" on behalf of the Nicaraguan Contras. Those charges never emerged when the Republican-controlled Senate confirmed Reich by voice vote in 1986 as ambassador to Venezuela. But since the fall of Nicaragua's leftist regime in 1990, O'Connell and her friends have vowed to keep Reich from public office.
The newer, widely published allegation that Reich in Caracas tried to gain entry into the United States of accused anti-Castro Cuban terrorist Orlando Bosch has been categorically denied by the State Department. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has notified publications who reported this charge that Reich "did not urge the Department of State to issue a visa to an accused terrorist. On the contrary, under his direction, the U.S. embassy advised the Department of State that it believed (Bosch) was ineligible for a visa."
These accusations and their rebuttals could have been aired in an open hearing, but Dodd would not activate that forum. Instead, as he did with me Sept. 29, he hints that "we may see another candidate emerge" from the White House, adding: "I'm not the only person (who opposes him). Nor is it just a Democratic opposition."
In truth, however, the president and Secretary of State Colin Powell have been firm in supporting Reich. Nor has Dodd enjoyed much success recruiting Republicans. The only GOP senator publicly opposed to Reich is Michael Enzi, a low-profile first-termer from Wyoming who nearly always votes conservative. On Dec. 20, Enzi joined Dodd in asking Bush not to make a recess appointment of Reich, citing the outrageous premise that "he has not gone through the requisite committee process."
State Department sources say Dodd convinced Enzi that Reich, a Cuban-American, would block the supposed cornucopia of farm exports to Cuba. But the Cuban embargo is up to George W. Bush, not Otto Reich. That is the president's responsibility, as is selecting who will serve in his administration.