"I can't tell you how honored I am, as a country boy, to be sitting here, saying hello and best wishes," Sen. Jesse Helms purred as he recently greeted 15 U.N. Security Council ambassadors in the ornate Old Senate Chamber. This aw-shucks Southern charm didn't keep the visitors from grousing about the $1.5 billion in back dues that Washington allegedly owes the U.N. Nor could Helms' honey-coated talk mask the sharp fall in status of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over which he presides.
International relations remain extremely important for the United States. The Cold War's end, however, has radically altered the challenges faced overseas. The Soviet Union's demise has obviated the need for new grand, bipartisan ventures like the U.N., the Greek-Turkish relief program, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift, and NATO.
More often than not foreign policy now involves complex, intractable problems that seldom yield clear-cut and popular outcomes. These include pursuing Middle East peace, preventing civil strife from further rupturing the Balkans, shoring up a wobbly regime in drug-ravaged Colombia and deciding Elin Gonzlez's fate.
In such thorny areas, lawmakers generally defer to the executive branch, reserving the right to castigate policies that fail outright, yield incomplete results, or suggest partisan motivation or vulnerability.
The new array of international issues works against the emergence of latter-day Arthur Vandenbergs and William Fulbrights, whose reputations as Senate titans sprang from mastery of foreign policy.
On the national scene, the crumbling of the Berlin Wall has diminished the salience of international affairs for a public more concerned with domestic matters. Thus, Senate aspirants emphasize "kitchen table" issues such as education, health care and Social Security benefits, and -- if elected -- seek posts on committees relevant to their constituents' everyday priorities.
The changing national agenda finds ever more parochial men and women arriving on Capitol Hill. Just a few years ago, candidates for national office extolled their study, travel or work abroad; many of the current crop of politicians didn't even possess a passport when elected.
Helms' style, objectives and performance as chairman have strongly affected the committee's status.
Although the North Carolinian's staff boasts more moderates since the 1992 reorganization of his office, his lieutenants still zealously pursue their boss's goals. Helms' personal credo encompasses God, country, law and order, and anti-communism.
Journalist James Kitfield has observed that in "foreign policy, these beliefs translate into a view of the world that is largely distrustful of international entanglements, unless they involve confronting Communist regimes that pose a direct threat to the United States."
Regardless of partisan control, the Foreign Relations Committee has traditionally adopted an internationalist stance, providing at least tough love to the State Department and sister agencies. Yet, Helms barely masks his contempt for the American diplomatic community, deemed a sanctum for Eastern elites.
Putting his chairmanship in service of his politics, he won passage of legislation abolishing the Agency for International Development, the United States Information Agency, and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, folding their functions into the State Department.
When President Clinton balked at such a root-and-branch reform, Helms held up ratification of the 1996 Chemical Weapons Convention -- which bans the use of poison gas -- until the administration caved.
Helms has also blocked ambassadorial appointments to show his disdain for either the nominees themselves or particular foreign-policy ventures.
He relished putting the kibosh on former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld's becoming envoy to Mexico, ridiculing both that nation's "ineffective, corrupt" drug war and Weld's support for medicinal marijuana.
Helms' autocratic approach to issues, his ideological fervor, his harsh treatment of foes and his staff's zeal have diminished the desirability of serving on a panel no longer regarded as especially powerful or prestigious by its own members.
In the words of one senator, who asked to remain anonymous: "Well, you know, it is fun to hobnob with foreign leaders and discuss world affairs, but it doesn't get me any place with my Senate colleagues .... Foreign Relations doesn't have much legislative jurisdiction that's important to other senators -- it's nothing like Finance or Appropriations. "
The committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, has suggested that the courtly Tar Heel is turning over a new leaf. "Helms does not want to leave . . . [the Senate] as the Bilbo of foreign policy," Biden said, referring to the racist, demagogic Theodore G. Bilbo, a Mississippi senator from 1935 to 1947. Biden, though, bears some responsibility for the committee's declining fortunes. In the 1970s and 1980s, committee leaders endowed their subcommittee counterparts with great leeway in spending subcommittee budgets and hiring staffs. In contrast, as a senior member of his own party informed me, Biden "micromanages" subcommittee budgets available to Democrats, and even inserts his own choices in subcommittee slots.
Such practices spur lawmakers to opt for other "Super A" committees -- finance, appropriations, or armed forces -- whose members can more easily amass the huge war chests required for re-election. In all fairness, the Foreign Relations Committee helps some legislators rake in cash. When two veterans left the committee last year, their replacements -- Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, and Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, looked forward to substantial financial support from high-rollers interested in Israel and Cuba.
Still, the committee's influence is nosediving. First, except for organization of the foreign affairs bureaucracy and executive-sponsored treaties like NATO expansion, the committee has approved few major pieces of legislation in recent years.
In truth, the committee has never functioned as a "big producer" such as, say, the finance and commerce committees. But it has failed to send to the floor a foreign-aid authorization bill since 1986.
Lethargy on the part of the authorizing or agenda-setting committee confers even greater clout on the appropriations committee, which handles expenditures. Once a foreign relations committee member himself, Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell shrewdly transferred to the appropriations committee in 1994. As chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee, he has far more impact on the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus than when he served on Helms' ideologically charged committee.
Second, even when Senate parliamentarians might have allowed the committee to exercise joint authority over matters affecting international affairs such as legislation implementing NAFTA, the chairman did not seek such a role, leaving the Finance Committee to scrutinize the controversial pact. Similarly, the Judiciary Committee has dominated bills on narcotics traffic, even though this issue increasingly affects U.S. security interests.
Finally, formation of special task forces furnishes Senate chiefs with another means to attenuate the role of standing committees.
For instance, the majority leader has established such ad hoc bodies to consider initiatives on arms control, economic sanctions and NATO enlargement.
The Foreign Relations Committee's diminished appeal finds fewer chairmen and ranking members of other committees opting to serve on what many senators once regarded as the premier assignment on Capitol Hill.
The exodus of senior lawmakers has opened the door to newcomers.
Between 1948 and 1990, the number of senators voluntarily leaving the the foreign relations committee was 12 -- a number that shot up to 18 in the 1990s.
Some of the first-termers heard Helms tell the visiting diplomats , "We hope that this is the beginning of an ongoing and permanent dialogue leading to a better U.S.-U.N. relationship."
As they climbed into their limousines, none of the U.N. envoys seemed prepared to bet the rent money on strengthened ties, at least not as long as Helms runs the ever-more parochial committee, whose prestige has plummeted apace with a growing preference for ideological crusades over executive-legislative cooperation in sound foreign policymaking.
George W. Grayson, who teaches government at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., has written "Strange Bedfellows: NATO Marches East" (University Press of America, Lanham, Md.).