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Hearing Weld Out: The Nomination Debate Shifts From Personality to Process

Anders Hove

In a very real sense, Bill Weld's battle for the ambassadorship to Mexico was never about his qualifications for the office. First, it was a clash of personalities: the suave, intellectual Weld versus country bumpkin Helms. Second, it was an ideological skirmish over Weld's liberal stance on marijuana. Finally, the nomination represented a test of political stamina: Who would cry "uncle" first - Bill or Jesse?

Just as prairie flames shift with the wind, so has the fight over Weld's nomination. The initial smoke of clashing personalities has begun to clear, and political analysts and pundits have begun to see that the fight transcends Weld, Helms, and even President Clinton. The nomination has become a struggle for basic due process in our national political institutions. Ours is said to be a government of laws, and the law says the president appoints ambassadors with the Senate's advice and consent. Custom has so twisted this guideline to the unacceptable point where federal officials serve at the whim of a single senator.

The Weld fight has been fraught with ups and downs. There was the initial happy announcement, which the local press met with everything from shock to mild derision. (One local television broadcast showed an animated jumbo jet carrying the governor to Mexico on its back.) Then came Helms' opposition, with its attendant alarm and confusion. Undeterred, our happy governor sallied forth against his newfound foe, only to be muzzled by an irate president. Then came Weld's dramatic departure from the statehouse, a moving event marred by continuing despondency among pundits as to the governor's daily odds.

This last week, however, the local press, which initially heaped scorn on Weld's every move, has switched to an entirely new tack. The Boston Globe has gone so far as to use feature-style news stories to highlight the historical egregiousness of Helms' position. Never before has one senator been allowed to so blatantly stand in the way of U.S. foreign policy.

Last Friday, at a committee hearing that was not a committee hearing, Helms struck back at the Globe and others who find his behavior uniquely despotic. Displaying charts listing hundreds of blocked nominations, Helms fairly begged his pursuers to cast the first stone.

Many are content to treat the Weld case as a political sideshow. Ambassadors are said to be political appointees, pretty faces sent to appear at foreign photo opportunities and frequent meaningless diplomatic ceremonies.

This view is certainly true in many cases, and would be true in Weld's case as well had the nomination not taken on such symbolic value in the Mexican press. Foreign policy is not just a matter of cool deliberation among insulated organs of state. Foreign policy is often deeply embedded in the public feeling and popular will. In this sense, Weld has become a diplomat already; in the Mexican press, he is cheered as all that is good and friendly in America, whereas Helms is condemned as the prototypical Ugly American, a gringo whose only knowledge of Central America comes from Taco Bell.

Helms and the Republican leadership, however, are loath to admit that the nomination might have some importance beyond their retrospective views about Weld's support of medicinal marijuana. Friday, when Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott called on Clinton to withdraw the nomination, he again called the appointment "political," and implied that dropping the nomination would improve relations with Mexico.

For Mexico, the Helms-Weld confrontation has symbolic meaning far beyond the ambassadorship. If Helms is allowed to succeed, he will have undone a great deal of progress in U.S.-Mexico relations. We should hardly expect our southern neighbor to endear itself to a nation that professes friendship and then tolerates Jesse Helms at the head of its foreign policy.

As for Helms, his blockage sets a precedent not so much in terms of senatorial rules but in terms of the proper conduct of national government. As Weld himself put it after Friday's non-hearing, "It seems like the chairman [Helms] set up to prove that the United States Senate is a despotic institution."

Arcane rules that appear to stifle popular and presidential will are almost a senatorial tradition. The filibuster and senatorial privilege represent infamous pitfalls for majority rule in the body. Committee chairmen have played an even bigger role in stifling legislation, bottling up bills at leisure. In many cases, however, the Senate has successfully combated its worst excesses - for example, by reducing the number of votes needed to end debate.

Senator Helms' behavior has crossed the line of decorum to where the situation can no longer be shrugged off as obscure senatorial tradition. That Helms could find 154 cases where nominees were denied hearings does nothing to prove the rightness of his position. Instead, it serves to underline the systemic nature of the problem. The Senate should do itself and the people a favor. Overriding Helms now would go a long way toward giving the Senate back its now tarnished dignity.