North Carolina Pays the Price
By Claude Sitton
Vol. 4, No. 6, 1982, pp. 9-11
Americans don’t ask much of those whom they send to the U.S. Senate. A senator can usually pass muster at the polls if he tips the pork barrel toward home occasionally, votes his constitutents’ pocketbook interests and keeps enough goodwill among his colleagues to avoid becoming an embarrassment to his state. Sen. Jesse Helms will leave Washington shortly it appears on two of those three counts.
Helms has offended the tobacco industry by switching his vote to assure passage of a tax bill that doubled the
levy on cigarettes. He has drawn the contempt and ridicule of other senators by threatening political retribution against those who opposed his proposals on abortion and prayer in the schools. And, now, he has suffered two stunning defeats on these very issues in as many weeks.
Not even Helmsites can deny that the session soon to recess has raised more critical questions about his ability than any other in his ten years in the Congress. There’s much irony in this. Helms could not have asked for a brighter political prospect than that which faced him in the Senate two years ago.
The apparent political mood was conservative, if not reactionary. Ronald Reagan, the Tar Heel senator’s own choice, had assumed the presidency. Republicans had taken control of the Senate, thanks in some measure to the PACman blitz against moderates and liberals financed by Helms’ National Congressional Club. And hot-eyed disciples of the moral majority were flooding Capitol Hill to demand that congressmen and senators toe their radical, right-wing line. Given those odds, success was a certainty.
But Helms managed to blow it. All manner of excuses come to mind. Post-election polls indicated that the conservatism read into the defeat of former President Carter was more apparent than real and was by no means the radicalism espoused by the Helms’ camp. Further, the single-issue factions of the right are a contentious lot. Helms, who compromises grudingly at best, soon found himself feuding with them. This same rigidity added to the senator’s troubles with others.
Republican control of the Senate had given Helms the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee, which once carried the obligatory prefix “powerful” before its name. One of the chairman’s important responsibilities, perhaps his most important, is shepherding the farm bill through the Senate. But Helms flunked his test as a legislative quarterback and Sen. Robert J. Dole, the Finance Committee chairman had to assume floor management of the bill to save it from defeat.
It’s possible that newfound fame had led Helms to feel he was above compromise. After all, had he not graced the cover of Time? But news magazine cover stories have hexed far greater figures than Helms. And, as observed by Lauch Faircloth, the canny state commerce secretary, “The higher the monkey climbs up the flagpole, the better you can see his rear.”
There’s a double irony in the recent twin defeats suffered by Helms under circumstances that once seemed so promising. He did not take a truly conservative position on either of the issues he chose for his fight-and-die stand in the Senate. Remember that the conservative theme sounded again and again in the 1980 campaign was “Let’s get government off our backs.”
Instead of halting government intervention, Helms sought legislation interposing government between a woman and her doctor in that most private of decisions–whether to end a pregnancy. He endorsed interventionism again with an amendment to a debt ceiling bill, an amendment that would have permitted states to order prayers in the public schools, a blatant contravention of the Constitution’s pledge of religious freedom.
That latter piece of mischief also would have stripped the Supreme Court of authority to review state prayer laws. This raised the specter of constitutional amendments voted by the legislative majority of the moment. That and other aspects of the two Helms proposals proved too much for even some conservatives.
Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Republican whom Helms acknowledges as the father of conservatism, was among the naysayers. Goldwater said Helms had damaged the conservative cause with his radical measures and bullyboy tactics. And it was Goldwater who gave the coup de grace to the Helms prayer amendment with a motion to send the debt ceiling bill to committee with instructions to rid it of all riders.
Some other senators thought that Helms was less interested in government-imposed morality than in whipping up emotions that would generate contributions to his National Congressional Club. Undoubtedly, those Helms apponents standing for re-election will feel the club’s lash. But whether Helms’ objectives are ideological or monetary, his actions leave no doubt that he ranks them ahead of everything else. That means that even his constituents’ economic welfare and the goodwill of his colleagues, without which no senator can be effective, come second.
This session, then, poses a question that only North Carolinians can answer. That is whether the state wants to go on paying the price of keeping this true believer of radical stripe in the Senate.
Claude Sitton its the editor of the Raleigh News and Observer.