IN A FIT of pique extreme and bizarre even by his standards, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, R-N.C., has shut down his committee. Senator Helms says he did it because the president and secretary of state "are playing hard ball and dirty pool at the same time, and I'm not going to cave in." He means they don't want to reorganize the State Department his way.
In fact, the senator is the one who is playing hard ball and dirty pool, and the Senate should be ashamed of itself for letting him get away with it. At the moment several important treaties and some 30 ambassadorial nominations await the Senate's advice and consent.
The full Senate needs to think some hard thoughts about this once important and prestigious committee. It is a sign of the times that the committee has had more turnover than other major committees in recent years. This year, of the 10 Republican members, seven are first termers (five were elected in 1994). A seat on the committee is not a plum any more. The committee had become "lackluster," as the non-ideological Congressional Quarterly put it, under previous chairmen, but now, under Senator Helms, it is a joke.
The Senate has a specific constitutional mandate to act on treaties and ambassadorial nominations. The full Senate, not its Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Senate's rules and precedents give the committee and its chairman power to behave in nutty and even dangerous ways, but in the past, when it has had to, the Senate has changed rules and created new precedents.
The Senate can do anything it wants to in this regard. Given the importance to national interests, including security interests, of a working State Department and diplomatic corps, not to mention the ratification of treaties, the Senate has to do something about Senator Helms' hard ball and dirty pool. If it doesn't, it will be caving in.