One-Man Rule

So Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina doesn't like former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld's brand of Republicanism, decries his willingness to consider legalizing marijuana for medicinal uses, and isn't about to loosen his grip on the prerogatives of chairmanship. Is any of that reason enough to scuttle the process for determining whether the country gets good representation abroad?

Prompted by the Weld affair, a majority of Helms's colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week forced the chairman to call a special meeting. But Weld's qualifications to be ambassador to Mexico never surfaced. Instead, Helms defended himself against charges that he is highhandedly, even dictatorially, blocking the Weld nomination.

With disdain, the senator pointed out that his refusal to hold a hearing was hardly unique. Even his leading critic on the committee, fellow Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, had killed nominations by similar means, charged Helms. Mr. Lugar, of course, had no opportunity to reply.

The North Carolinian has a point. All this is happening because his chamber's outworn traditions allow it. Some scholars of Congress, such as the American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein, warn that the Senate's enshrinement of minority rights is being distorted into "a rule of prima donnas." The autocratic power of committee chairs is only one facet of the problem. The ability of any senator to put an indefinite "hold" on legislation is another. As is the filibuster threat, by which any member can subject a bill to a two-thirds majority.

We continue to hope the Weld nomination will get its constitutionally mandated hearing. We'd like to hear the nominee's thoughts on relations with Mexico. And we'd like to hear his response to the narcotics-related doubts raised by chairman Helms.

If we, and other Americans, don't get the opportunity, that's wrong. And the Senate's procedures ought to be changed to prevent this from happening again.

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