The Corner

The Corpse in the Senate Cloakroom

There will shortly be discovered a corpse in the U.S. Senate cloakroom. Investigators will puzzle over its identity which looks different from different angles. Its status will also be unclear because sometimes it seems to be the murderer and sometimes the victim. At times one might almost imagine that there are two corpses, both victims, one perhaps also the murderer.

The first corpse (and unchallengeable victim)—unless the police are in time to save him—is that of Ambassador Victor Ashe, former mayor of Knoxville, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland, and until his forthcoming murder, a Member of the Board of Broadcasting Governors, the body that oversees U.S. International Broadcasting—i.e., VOA, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, etc., etc.—henceforth USIB.

Mr. Ashe’s credentials as a victim are flawless ones in Washington: he is dedicated, successful, popular, and bi-partisan. He has formed a working coalition with two Democratic BBG governors, Michael Meehan and Susan McCue, to ensure that the BBG spends more of its budget on helping USIB to get its messages over and around the various electronic firewalls set up by authoritarian regimes to keep their people uninformed. He took the lead in halting and reversing a reorganization of Radio Liberty that had led to the sacking of about forty journalists in its Moscow bureau—and led also to massive protests by the entire human rights community in Moscow from Gorbachev to Bukovsky. He has been consistently skeptical about the Washington bureaucracy’s favorite schemes of reorganization—call it “BBC Envy”—asking the broadcasters themselves their opinions (and protecting them in the process.) He, Meehan, and McCue were together responsible for the shrewd appointment as president of Kevin Klose as president of RFERL. (Klose is universally acknowledged to have done a fine job of restoring Radio Liberty to successful programming with the minimum of fuss and fume.) As a result Ashe has been given votes of thanks by the broadcasting unions (not a universal experience for Republicans) and recently got a telegram of support from the journalists in the Moscow bureau here.

Naturally, Ashe had to go. The first assassination attempt took place earlier this year. But it was bungled. The vehicle for this attack was a report by the Inspector General on the failings of the BBG. Some of its general criticisms of the BBG were valid, but what was highly unusual and suspect was  it fingered out Ashe for particular attack. As I wrote at the time:

“This open attack on a board member was both unprecedented and against the convention of anonymity. It was also a transparent hit job. The passages attacking Ashe read as if they had been dictated by senior board bureaucrats who found Ashe a constant thorn in their side (by contrast Ashe is a hero to the rank-and-file broadcasters and their unions). It was plainly designed to force his resignation or at best to prevent his re-nomination to the board.

Still more extraordinary than this, however, was the kind of arguments used in the report to indict Ashe and the other governors. They were accused of such mortal sins as not following the five-year plan for USIB devised by the bureaucrats; exchanging harsh words in board discussions on policy; refusing to be bound by former majority decisions when they believed conditions had changed; demanding information (including about spending) which the bureaucrats thought should be above their station; and in general acting like political appointees who thought their job was to run a government agency sensibly and in the light of the latest information. In other words, as well as a hit job on Ashe, the report was also an attempt by the bureaucrats to extend their own power and influence over the board.

That was not an unrealistic ambition. There was a plan, under long gestation but finally on the table, to create a joint CEO at the head of a new BBG/IBB leviathan to whom both the presidents of the broadcasting entities and the agency bureaucrats would report. He would inevitably be a very powerful figure, formally reporting to the governors but in reality running them. And the report painted a picture of the Board that seemed to justify their subordination to a CEO in such a new managerial structure.

But the report was a victim of poor timing. Only a month before it was due to come out, the Board developed second thoughts about what was happening at RFERL. It looked both into the Moscow firings and into the wider question of the kind of journalism that Radio Liberty should practice. As a result it decided to make a change in the leadership of RFERL in accordance with Ashe’s criticism.”

Ashe had been vindicated. This complicated the problem for the BBG’s bureaucracy. Any future assassination attempt would have to be more subtle. It couldn’t take place in public. It would have to be disguised as a routine official decision that had nothing to do with Ashe. The plotters hatched an ingenious scheme.

The BBG is a bipartisan body composed of four Republicans and four Democrats, all chosen by their respective Senate leaderships (with a casting vote in the hands of the Secretary of State, currently John Kerry, who usually appoints his Asst. Secretary to cast it.) Currently, however, because of earlier resignations, there are only three regular BBG members—Ashe the Republican,  and Democrats Meehan and McCue—plus Kerry. To fill three of the four vacancies the White House has sent down the nominations of one Democrat (Jeff Shell, to be BBG chairman) and two Republicans (Ryan Crocker and Matthew Armstrong.) All three are exemplary nominations and more or less unopposed. Other things being equal, the changes would restore balance to the Board—three Democrats and three Republicans with Kerry enjoying the casting vote—and would usually be rubber-stamped. That would reflect the tradition of both the BBG and USIB that partisan politics play no part in their debates and decisions. And this non-partisan tradition is both vital in itself and the reason why USIB gets strong support from both sides on Capitol Hill.

But other things are curiously unequal. Somewhere along the line Crocker’s nomination got subtly changed. It is no longer being proposed to fill one of three (three!) Republican vacancies. It is now presented as a replacement for the retiring Ashe who—how can I put this politely?—hadn’t been planning on retiring. As a result, instead of a 3-3 balance on the Board, if the Senate okays the nominations tomorrow, there will be a 3-2 Democrat majority on the Board or a 4-2 Democrat majority when the Secretary of State’s representative votes.

How did this happen? The Republican nominees are selected and sent to the White House by the office of the Senate Minority Leader. I doubt that Senator McConnell decided to give the Democrats an automatic majority on the BBG by specifying that Crocker was a replacement for Ashe. Did the White House make the change when passing on the nomination? Well, it’s possible, but even in this White House no senior official would be likely to put at risk the USIB tradition of bi-partisanship without a strong reason. And there doesn’t appear to be a strong reason—unless perhaps an imprudent junior official took the hint from bureaucrats in the IBB/BBG machine room exclaiming “Will no one rid us of this meddlesome governor?”

Well, who was responsible: Senator McConnell (in a moment of carelessness or miscalculation)? The President bent on breaking yet another set of rules in a mood of partisan zealotry? Or the same bureaucrats who whispered in the ear of the Inspector-General six months ago?

But those are secondary questions. As Helle Dale on the Heritage Foundation website has asked here and here why should the Senate ratify such an obvious stitch-up, whoever was responsible, when they can put a hold on the nominations for later consideration. That decision will be made today. And if the nominations go ahead over Ashe’s dead body, there may be more than one corpse in the Senate cloakroom because a lot of people will want to know why.

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