Mosbacher leaves his ship adrift Outgoing Commerce secretary lost turf to other agencies.

December 27, 1991|By New York Times

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's choice for commerce secretary, Barbara H. Franklin, will inherit an agency diminished by its loss of primacy over international trade and somewhat weakened by the management style of its current leader, Robert A. Mosbacher.

Mosbacher, who will leave next month to head the president's re-election campaign, has played a limited role in interagency debates on issues like tax and health policy and international trade.

Unlike his combative predecessor, Malcolm Baldrige, he has spent much time jetting around the world on trade missions with the nation's corporate elite, seeking to open new markets for American exports.

He has promoted American exports with some success, including forcing Japan to amend its regulations on large retail stores, which allowed Toys "R" Us to open its first discount outlet there last week.

And even though he is a close friend of Bush, Mosbacher has not always chosen to use the relationship to push his own views or his agency's cause.

The result, say Mosbacher's critics -- who include administration officials and trade experts, some of whom consider themselves friends and allies of the commerce secretary -- has been an agency adrift.

A small crew of veteran administrators continues to work long hours on technical issues like weather forecasting, the census and economic indicators, while the department loses policy debates to other government agencies and watches from the sidelines while others determine the nation's health and tax policies.

And with the recent departure of several senior officials and the possible departure of several others next year, even the department's technical competence has been questioned.

"The department needs to be much more broad-gauged and not just a Chamber of Commerce," said a top administration official, who, like other critics, insisted on anonymity. "There's a lot more to the Commerce Department than export promotion."

But other administration officials and some corporate executives strongly disagree. They point out that Mosbacher has worked well with businesses, and they defend his emphasis on exports in light of the growing concern about the nation's economic competitiveness.

Roger B. Porter, the assistant to the president for economic and domestic policy and a former Harvard University professor who has studied the nation's trade policy, said the department had not lost influence during Mosbacher's tenure.

"Bob Mosbacher has as close a personal relationship with the president as any commerce secretary has had in the post-World War II period," he said.

Mosbacher dismisses criticisms of his aloofness from policy matters as the complaints of "low-level nerds" in the federal government. The collegial nature of decision-making in the administration has obscured the extent of his involvement, he says.

Commerce secretaries have traditionally championed the interests of business within the administration. Mosbacher pointed to his success in persuading the White House that corporate leaders should accompany Bush to Japan next month as evidence that he supports them. And Mosbacher was the first Cabinet secretary to warn that banks' increasingly cautious lending policies were making it hard for companies to borrow and making it difficult for the nation to recover from the recession.

The Commerce Department is also playing the lead negotiating role on American trade in automobiles and auto parts with Japan, the biggest bilateral commercial issue. And Mosbacher has pushed for lower capital gains taxes and tax credits to support research and development.

Yet his sometimes limited influence as Cabinet secretary was illustrated again last Friday, when he scheduled a news briefing to discuss his effort to send top corporate executives with Bush on his Asian trip.

Samuel K. Skinner, the new White House chief of staff, appeared at the briefing and took the podium first, praising the decision to take the executives on the trip and then listing the president's key economic policy advisers as the Treasury secretary, Nicholas F. Brady; the budget director, Richard Darman, and the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Michael Boskin.

Skinner conspicuously did not mention either Mosbacher, who was standing nearby, or the Commerce Department, which has traditionally played a role in economic policy-making.

The incident highlighted an erosion during the 1980s of the Commerce Department's vast bureaucratic turf.

The trade representative, Carla A. Hills, now dominates the nation's trade policy.

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