Who Is Ruth Harkin And Why Is She So Popular?

As Vice-President, Al Gore is used to playing second fiddle. But it wasn't President Clinton that visiting Russian dignitaries were clamoring to see at a fall luncheon Gore hosted in their honor. As the guests shook his hand, the amused Veep recalls, they kept asking: "Where is Mrs. Harkin?"

Could they really mean Ruth R. Harkin, president of one of the most obscure agencies in Washington, the Overseas Private Investment Corp.? You bet. Under Harkin, OPIC's art deco offices have become a must-visit for VIPs of nascent market economies from Haiti to Ukraine, all hoping to lure American private capital. OPIC's loans, guarantees, and political risk insurance support a rapidly growing portfolio of far-flung U.S. ventures abroad, from a laundromat chain in South Africa to a power plant in Turkey. Since 1993, the agency's budget has ballooned nearly tenfold, to $94 million for fiscal 1995.

Although that sum seems small, it can be leveraged to support $2 billion in loan guarantees. And OPIC makes a profit to boot. The 23-year-old federal agency's rise to prominence outside the Beltway partly reflects a shift in U.S. priorities. While the Clinton Administration isn't eliminating handouts, it thinks trade and investment initiatives are better ways to stretch the shrinking foreign assistance budget. And OPIC's mission dovetails with Clinton's belief that foreign policy should serve domestic interests. "What loose change we have should be used in ways that directly benefit Americans and American companies," says Harkin.

IMPORTANT FAN. The Republican takeover of Congress will accelerate that trend. While Senator Jesse A. Helms (N.C.), the incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has vowed to hack away at the U.S. Agency for International Development, he's a fan af OPIC. So are such probusiness Republican moderates such as Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the incoming chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees Harkin's agency.

As the wife of Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Harkin enjoys more clout than her position might normally justify. She has used her political muscle to position OPIC at the forefront of U.S. initiatives in the former Soviet Union, South Africa, the Middle East, and Haiti. Her reputation for responding quickly to queries from Congress or policymakers has helped make the agency a player. When Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott called to ask if OPIC could pitch in on aid to Haiti, Harkin's office faxed back a plan for $100 million in financing and risk insurance by 2:30 p.m. the same day.

The 50-year-old Harkin sees lucrative opportunities for U.S. companies in the global infrastructure boom. To enable OPIC to participate in such megaprojects, she increased the $50 million ceiling on the agency's per-project financing to $200 million and doubled its insurance limit to $200 million. Another Harkin innovation is an expanding stable of OPIC-backed private equity growth funds. They are seeding investments in South African mining projects, Polish merchandising ventures, and environmental cleanup facilities around the world. Next up: a pitch to get U.S. business involved in defense-conversion projects in the former Soviet republics.

USER-FRIENDLY. OPIC's hands-on approach goes beyond merely doling out money and insurance. Like Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, Harkin routinely ferries planeloads of American executives on investment missions abroad--she has logged more than 160,000 km over the past year--and lobbies finance ministers and prime ministers to secure deals on their behalf. Says Harkin: "It's important for government entities to know we're keenly interested in the American investor."

U.S. business appreciates the effort, and OPIC's user-friendly attitude. "Their approach is, `Let's do it, and how can we do it sooner?"' says the president of a major American power company that is negotiating, with OPIC's help, to construct a $140 million electric power and desalinization facility in Gaza. At a time when a Republican Congress vows to make government work better with less, OPIC could very well emerge as a role model for federal agencies.

Amy Borrus in Washington

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