The Senate returned to Washington this week to face a controversy for which almost nobody has any stomach.
The issue of William Weld's nomination to be ambassador to Mexico has moved beyond Mr. Weld's qualifications. It now involves the prerogatives of Senate committee chairmen in general, and in particular of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina. It thus includes both Senate traditions and Senate personalities.
Mixing these broader questions with the issue of the nomination does Mr. Weld no good. The irony is that he and his supporters are largely responsible.
Weld has declared, "I don't play by [Washington] rules," ignoring the fact that those are the rules under which his fate will be determined. And his supporters have not only brought in the extraneous matter of Senate procedures and prerogatives; they have also left the impression that the rules give Senator Helms more authority than he really has.
On the other hand, Helms has weakened his own position by his staunch refusal to allow a hearing for Weld, thereby violating a long line of precedents of the Foreign Relations Committee, not to mention a specific rule: "Insofar as possible, proceedings of the Committee will be conducted without resort to the formalities of parliamentary procedure and with due regard for the views of all members."
The rules also provide a way around an impasse, such as now exists, by resorting to the formalities that are generally voided.
Under these rules, the committee regularly meets on Tuesdays. At one of these meetings, let a member favorable to Weld move to proceed to consideration of the nomination. The chairman will probably rule the motion out of order because the nomination will not be on the agenda, and he can probably make that ruling stick.
At that point, any three members of the committee can make a written request to the chairman that a special meeting be held.
IF, within three days, the chairman does not call such a meeting to be held within seven days of the request, then a majority of the members of the committee (10 senators as the committee is now constituted) can themselves call such a meeting. At that time, the committee can decide to have hearings, to dispose of the nomination favorably or unfavorably without hearings, or to do nothing.
There are precedents for all of these choices. Since World War II, the committee's preferred method of disposing of nominations it does not like has been simply to do nothing, thereby letting the nominations expire on the adjournment of that session of Congress. That is what will happen to the Weld nomination if Helms has his way.
But the precedents are that when the committee kills a nomination by inaction, it does so by consensus and not by the whim of the chairman. Under Helms's predecessors, a hearing was held whenever any member requested one, even when the chairman himself opposed the nomination.
A GOOD deal of the power of a Senate committee chairman comes from the acquiescence of his committee members, usually because they have no strong views about what he is doing. A senator who does not care whether Weld or somebody else is ambassador to Mexico is unlikely to pick a fight with Helms about the committee's procedure. By repeated exercise, power comes to be viewed as stemming from tradition instead of consent. It comes to be taken for granted. Because the Senate is so devoted to tradition, senators are loath to challenge even an arbitrary use of power when it is perceived to be based on custom. But senatorial patience is not unlimited. Helms and other Senate chairmen might well reflect on the revolution that hit the House in 1974 and 1975.
House committee chairmen at that time had long run their committees with such iron hands that they were known as the barons, and nobody dared challenge them. But newly elected members did exactly that. Three longtime committee chairmen were deposed, new committee rules were dictated, and the House has not been the same since.
It is curious that Helms has been so adamant about this matter. Scheduling a hearing on a controversial nomination by no means necessarily advances the confirmation process. On the contrary, prolonged hearings are one way to delay the process and thereby prevent confirmation. Chairmen of the Foreign Relations Committee have used many other tactics to achieve the same end without causing a fuss about procedural matters.
It would be a pity if the Senate got itself in a mess over a controversy which need not have existed.
* Pat Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.