With Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown and Budget Director Leon Panetta at her side, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on Tuesday unveiled the Boxer Defense Conversion Clearinghouse Plan, a program to make it easier for communities devastated by defense cuts to find federal help.
Brown hailed the plan as an integral part of President Clinton's program for reinventing government by making federal agencies more streamlined and more effective.
But the sketchy details and confusion evident at Tuesday's news conference underscored the difficulty of bringing about effective defense conversion efforts by the federal government.
The Boxer plan is intended to create a "one-stop shop" that will serve as a central clearinghouse for the 23 federal departments that offer various defense conversion assistance.
At the news conference, however, Boxer and Clinton Administration officials were unclear about how and when the plan would be implemented.
Brown said a toll-free telephone number to provide information about defense conversion to workers, businesses and communities "is running" as of Tuesday, although none of the officials could provide the number. They promised to give it to reporters later in the day.
"There is no 1-800 number for the clearinghouse yet," a Boxer spokeswoman said later in the day. "It will be announced on Nov. 15. Ron Brown got confused and then he confused everybody in the room."
But Brown's aides at the Commerce Department said the secretary was referring to a toll-free defense conversion hot line that has been in operation since last spring, when the Pentagon announced a new round of base closings. It is likely, said a top Commerce official, that the Boxer clearinghouse will adopt the same number.
Anyone with questions about defense conversion programs should call (800) 345-1222 between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. Pacific time, Brown's aides said.
Boxer said her program will connect callers with "conversion specialists"; Brown said the calls would be answered by regular Commerce Department operators with some special training.
"I think in order to do this right, they will have to train people so they have a much better understanding of what is going on," said Joel Yudken, a Boxer aide.
Nor was it clear how Department of Commerce operators would assist unemployed defense workers in landing new jobs or what they could do for large Pentagon suppliers that have lost lucrative contracts.
Roger Lambertson, government affairs representative for giant defense contractor Lockheed Corp. in California, was on hand at Tuesday's news conference in support of Boxer's plan. Asked what a government hot line could offer a multibillion-dollar company with highly paid Washington lobbyists such as Lockheed, Lambertson said: "I see the potential for Lockheed to use it. I think we need to let it shake itself out to see how it goes. I think it is a positive first step. I really do."
Major businesses and community leaders often work through their congressional representatives to find defense conversion help.
Boxer first announced the clearinghouse concept in a bill introduced in April. The goal was to provide unemployed workers, defense contractors and hard-hit communities with all of the information they needed about defense conversion programs.
The program announced Tuesday eventually will include on-line computer access to databases of several government agencies, including the Commerce Department, the National Space and Aeronautics Administration and the departments of Energy, Transportation and Defense.
Panetta, Boxer said, was instrumental in getting the money to finance the clearinghouse plan--about $1.5 million a year that will come out of President Clinton's five-year, $20-billion defense conversion package.
"Our people need help, particularly in states like California," Boxer said. "With today's announcement, we are saying that we really can get things done, that we really can help our businesses and workers compete--and win--in the new global economy."