WASHINGTON — This spring's drug certification battle was so humiliating for Mexico and so embarrassing for the Clinton administration that sentiment is growing in Congress and the White House to scrap the process and come up with something less troublesome.
President Clinton certified Mexico's efforts in the drug war despite a bribery scandal that led to the resignation of its anti-drug czar and provoked a drive in Congress to overturn Clinton's decision. In the end, the drive fell short. If it had succeeded, an infuriated Mexican government would probably have called off Clinton's recent official visit to the country.
Clinton seems to think that Congress has taken the first steps toward change. In an interview with Mexican television correspondents before his visit, he said "it may not be productive" to decertify a country such as Mexico for falling short of full cooperation with the United States in the war on drugs.
"So we have now a bipartisan review going on in Congress, which I have supported," Clinton said. "A lot of our strongest members of Congress are questioning whether this is the right thing to do, whether the process should be reformed. And I'm supporting the review, and I think you will see the results of it pretty soon."
But, according to State Department and congressional sources, no formal bipartisan review is going on--although there's a lot of talk in Washington about Mexico, drugs and certification. Clinton may have been guilty of wishful thinking. Or he may have been thinking of a proposal by Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) for the appointment of a bipartisan national commission to study certification--a proposal that has never been adopted.
In fact, many congressional sources believe that Congress will not change the process in time to prevent another bruising certification battle next March.
Under the annual certification process, which began in 1986, the president is required to certify that countries used by drug traffickers for production or transshipment are cooperating fully in the U.S.-led war on drugs. If he does not certify them as cooperative, he must either withhold some economic assistance or rule that he is exempting the guilty from punishment because of the U.S. "national interest."
On the 1996 scorecard, Clinton certified 23 countries--including Mexico--as cooperating, denied certification to six and punished them, and denied certification to three others but exempted them from punishment.
Some hopes for an end to the certification process were stirred in early May when the House International Relations Committee adopted a proposal by Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) to scrap it. The vote was 24 to 18.
Under the Hamilton proposal, which was added to a foreign policy reform bill, the president would instead have the authority to impose sanctions on errant countries whenever he felt it would be useful to do so in the war on drugs.
"What we learned [in the recent certification fight] . . . is that this tool is a blunt instrument that simply does not work," Hamilton said. "It does not lead to increased cooperation in the international fight against narcotics. In fact, it discourages cooperation."
But committee Chairman Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.) opposed the Hamilton amendment, and he is expected to ask the House to eliminate it when the bill reaches the floor. The House is expected to heed Gilman.
Under Kolbe's plan, the Clinton administration and Congress would appoint a 12-member commission to study the effectiveness of certification in "curtailing international drug trafficking . . . enhancing international counter-narcotics cooperation . . . and reducing drug use and consumption in the United States." The commission would operate under the assumption that the present "annual certification process . . . is flawed."
The commission, which would be known as the High Level Commission on International Narcotics Control, would be required to make an interim report in six months and a final report with recommendations in a year.
Kolbe's proposal is now a bill, but congressional sources believe that it has only a slim chance of gaining approval despite its success in the House earlier this year. The House resolution, which was never expected to win final congressional approval, contained a hodgepodge of provisions that had not been examined very closely. Many members of Congress do not relish the idea of handing over legislative powers to a national commission.