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One for the System

January 21, 1987

The chief Republican spokesman on foreign policy in the Senate will be Jesse Helms of North Carolina, the zealous ideologue whose level of international political sophistication essentially begins and ends with the conceit that right-wing dictatorships are the preferred way to deal with the problems of frustrated human aspirations.

Helms was the clear choice of fellow Republicans, who on a 24-17 vote selected him as the ranking minority member of the Foreign Relations Committee. The loser in that contest was Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, a moderate who served as chairman of the committee for two years in the last Congress. Helms, who has four years of seniority on Lugar, did not seek the Foreign Relations Committee chairmanship in the 99th Congress, preferring instead to head the Agriculture Committee so that he could better look out for the subsidized well-being of tobacco farmers and other agricultural interests in his home state. He attributes his victory largely to reverence for the seniority system. Certainly it reflects no reverence for the use of informed reason to deal with the complex issues of foreign policy.

Helms will not, of course, be the sole Republican voice in the Senate on foreign policy. But as the ranking minority member of the key committee dealing with foreign-policy issues he will have the opportunity to be the most visible and the most frequently heard spokesman for his party. He will also have the power to name the minority staff, and through that staff to influence reports and legislation.

Helms' use of influence in the past has, of course, proved to be something less than responsible. He has shamelessly held ambassadorial and other appointments hostage, often demanding and getting top-level jobs for his own ideological allies as the price for allowing confirmation of the President's own choices. He has meddled often and crudely in Latin American policy, almost invariably against the forces of democratic change. Helms has never shown hesitancy or embarrassment in trying to undercut the policies of the Reagan Administration. Now a majority of the Senate's Republicans have given him the chance to do new mischief. He can be counted on to make the most of it.

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