How the senator from North Carolina holds the world hostage
Originally published in The Nation.
NOT TOO LONG AGO, JESSE FRIEDMAN, the deputy director of the American Institute for Free Labor Development, and several Nicaraguan union leaders came up with an idea to help low-income workers in that country: a home-improvement loan fund, from which union members could borrow up to $1,000 to add bedrooms or improve their plumbing systems. “Unions are pressed for creative new ways to provide meaningful service—and we could do it on the cheap,” he says.
Friedman approached the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for start-up funds, explaining that free trade unions play an important role in strengthening emerging democracies like Nicaragua’s. USAID, which administers the government’s foreign-aid program and has assisted Nicaragua in the aftermath of the contra war, liked the idea and offered $5 million. The program would help an estimated 7,500 families, 42,000 individuals in all, and would give a boost to the nation’s construction industry.
But the project never got off the ground, thanks to one recalcitrant U.S. senator. Four months before he became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms placed a hold on the funding, demanding to know whether the home improvement program was a guise to funnel money to the Sandinistas. No amount of persuasion could convince him this was not a secret campaign to fund his sworn enemy. After he took over the committee, Helms tightened his grip on the funding. Finally, USAID gave up. Friedman doesn’t conceal his disappointment: “Democracy is a smorgasbord. In socially restrictive societies, labor unions are one of the ways somebody with limited education can rise to power. The idea was a great one. It’s a shame we never did it.”
Lately, Helms has been making life difficult for people all over the world, and not just with his most publicized antics. In the year since the G.O.P. took over both houses of Congress, Helms has amassed more power than ever before—and he’s used it in both overt and secretive ways. He has worked to derail U.S. foreign policy. He has intimidated Democrats and moderate Republicans, forcing them to deal with his list of priorities. And his influence has penetrated deep into the foreign-service bureaucracy, so even lower-level employees in far-flung parts of the world fear making any move that might anger North Carolina’s senior Senator. It was after pressure from Helms that the State Department began an investigation into a letter that U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican (and former Boston mayor) Raymond Flynn sent to U.S. Catholic leaders prior to the Pope’s visit to America last summer. The department’s inspector general decided that Flynn had failed to avoid “the appearance of partisanship” when he excoriated current Congressional attempts to gut antipoverty programs. The inspector general recommended a reprimand of Flynn, and now Senator Helms is calling for a Justice Department investigation.
“Whereas in the eighties he was an obstructionist—he was of nuisance value—now he really establishes the agenda,” says Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “Helms has been able to achieve what he wants to achieve, which is to be the ultimate Secretary of State. To a certain extent, there’s a dyarchy in foreign policy, a rule by two: the State Department and Helms.”
WALK INTO THE WAITING ROOM of Helms’s Capitol Hill office and you’ll be greeted by a pair of honey-sweet secretaries and a certain ur-Republican blandness. Between the two reception desks sits an oversized carton full of the Senator’s most beloved agricultural products: Winstons, Camels, Vantages, Salem Lights. A Fraternal Order of the Police award hangs on the wall, along with a triumphant article—”Senator Helms Won, The News Media Lost”—from the Daily Record of Dunn, North Carolina. Inside the sanctum, Helms staffers feel less reticent about displaying their passions. On one desk sits a Confederate flag next to a “No Castro, No Problem” bumper sticker. A computer hums quietly nearby, its screensaver proclaiming Helms’s loyalty to military equipment over endangered animals: “Kill the redwolf…. Save the Seawolf!!!!”
Likewise, Helms shields his zealotry with a bland folksy exterior. Although he’s known for his outrageous floor speeches—”We have got to call a spade a spade and a perverted human being a perverted human being,” he once said during a tirade against safe-sex education—up close the 74-year-old Senator comes across as awkward and easily rattled. During an impromptu press conference in December, following a hearing with Secretary of State Warren Christopher and other Administration officials, Helms seemed flustered when reporters tried to pin him down on the deployment of U.S. forces to Bosnia.
Reporter: How active will you be in opposing it?
Helms: Well…how do you know I’m going to oppose it?
Reporter: Well, you said they did not persuade you.
Helms: Yet. Don’t put words in my mouth….
Reporter: O.K. I’m trying not to.
Helms: ….about needing a bodyguard or anything else.
Reporter: I didn’t put words in your mouth then.
Helms: No, you did not. You certainly did not. I appreciated the way you handled it.
THAT BUMBLING PERSONA covers a brilliant staff-driven operation that has turned the Foreign Relations Committee into a vehicle for Helms’s own isolationist agenda. This fall he took the awesome power of the chairmanship to its extreme, grinding foreign policy to a near halt when he couldn’t get his way. At issue was the Senator’s complete antipathy to foreign aid, which for twenty years he has called “the greatest racket of all time” and “the rip-off of the American taxpayers.” (Foreign aid makes up 1 percent of the federal budget.) Last March Helms introduced a bill dismantling three independent foreign affairs agencies: USAID, the United States Information Agency and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He wanted to fold the three into the State Department, cutting $3.6 billion from their combined budgets and slashing staff. “We’ve got a proliferation of agencies that have duplicative functions that waste millions and millions of taxpayer dollars every day,” explains Foreign Relations spokesman Marc Thiessen. “That, in and of itself, is a left-leaning bent.”
“The whole concept of foreign aid…doesn’t make any sense,” Helms explained to his committee during a hearing on his bill. By a unanimous vote, the Republicans approved the plan. Even internationalists like Richard Lugar and Nancy Kassebaum voted “aye.” In a moment of frankness, Lugar aide Kenneth Myers III hinted at the reason for his boss’s acquiescence. “Senator Lugar doesn’t think it serves any purpose to criticize Senator Helms,” he told National Journal. “We’ll need Helms’s at least tacit support [for the START II treaty] to keep the right-wingers down.”
The Democrats didn’t go along. Noting that the three agencies have already taken deep cuts, they filibustered the bill—and in retaliation, Helms shut down the Foreign Relations Committee for four months. START II and the Chemical Weapons Convention were stalled. The Middle East Peace Facilitation Act was delayed. Eighteen ambassadorial nominations—including ones to China, South Africa and Lebanon—remained on hold.
THE NEWS MEDIA HAD A FIELD DAY with Helms’s maneuvers, but reporters failed to explain the critical issues at stake in the affected countries. In August, Guyana suffered a massive cyanide spill from a gold mine into its largest river, and no U.S. ambassador was present to marshal cleanup resources. Pakistan needed a high-level American presence when four Western tourists, including a U.S. citizen, were taken hostage in Indian-ruled Kashmir. During an unsuccessful coup attempt in São Tomé and Príncipe in August, there was no U.S. ambassador to coordinate an international response. In Thailand, issues of intellectual property, taxes, narcotics, money laundering and refugees went unresolved; so did trade issues in Gabon, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.
Helms says the holdup of the appointments has “had no disabling effect” on foreign policy. “China has made more concessions to the United States while we’ve had no ambassador over there than we’ve had in years,” he told me. Still, in December, the Democrats caved, agreeing to a compromise that would require President Clinton to reorganize the foreign affairs bureaucracy and cut $1.7 billion in spending. Foreign Relations Committee spokesman Thiessen says the funding cut will affect only “the structure of our foreign affairs agencies.” But USAID estimates that as much as $510 million will come from programs. The agencies will “be emasculated,” says Senator Joseph Biden. “I think this bill virtually assures their demise.”
Not all of Helms’s efforts have been so well publicized. Throughout his first year as Foreign Relations Committee chairman, the Senator has used back-door methods to scuttle humanitarian and development-assistance programs throughout the world. He’s done it by taking advantage of every bureaucratic prerogative available to him.
Certain committees can place “informational holds” on USAID projects, delaying funding until a lawmaker gets a question answered. Traditionally, these holds are brief and infrequent. The last time the G.O.P. controlled the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee placed five holds in four years.
Helms placed eighty-four holds in 1995. He delayed democracy initiatives throughout the former Soviet Union; family-planning and HIV-prevention efforts in Africa and South America; and health, housing, small-business and education programs on several continents. And he held up funds for the oversight of the Haitian presidential elections. “It hurts our credibility in Haiti,” says a USAID official. It also lent to the sense “that maybe there [was] an option to not have an election.”
USAID canceled only a handful of programs—including the Nicaraguan loan fund and a home-ownership program for low-income women in India—as a result of Helms’s hold, but the Senator’s maneuvers caused other damage at the agency. Helms initially withheld $16 million in USAID funds for Family Health International, a North Carolina-based organization that has pioneered new ways to get contraceptives to women in the poorest corners of the planet. The money was earmarked for the development of new birth-control devices (F.H.I. developed the female condom) that meet Food and Drug Administration standards; F.H.I. also planned to use some of the funds to discover the most socially acceptable contraceptives among various cultures. Helms did finally release the money on the last day of the budget year. While F.H.I. continued its work without interruption, the incident created chaos within the organization. (With F.H.I.’s population-control program threatening to close down, some staff members looked for work elsewhere, for example, and president Ted King observes that his organization “lost some very fine people.”)
Helms has employed a variety of other tricks to slow USAID’s operations. According to an agency memo, he has “requested a review of every publication produced by USAID, and requested significantly more staff briefings than any other oversight committee. All these requests have taken up literally thousands of man-hours during a time when Senator Helms has proposed legislation that specifically reduced USAID’s staff by fifty percent.” Agency insiders add that Helms’s eagle eye has had a particularly chilling effect on USAID programs in sensitive areas like AIDS prevention. “We have to be very careful of the language and the wording of our [AIDS] projects and the types of people and programs we fund,” says one employee. “It adds an unfortunate political dynamic to an issue that should not have to bear that level of political scrutiny.”
THE INTIMIDATION HAS SPREAD WELL BEYOND USAID. Last year the United States Information Agency virtually cut off its funding to artists throughout the world—artists like John Ferguson, a pianist whose Netherlands-based organization American Voices has given multicultural American-music workshops in long-ignored communities throughout Asia and Eastern Europe. Helms’s efforts to eliminate the U.S.I.A. has forced the agency into subsistence mode—and the arts have been deemed expendable compared with, say, the promotion of market economies in former Communist countries. “We ceased doing [cultural] programs for all intents and purposes a couple of months ago, thanks to…the determination by some Republicans to reduce our foreign affairs establishment to the size of Rumania’s,” says a recent memo from one U.S.I.A. post.
The result, says an agency official in Eastern Europe, is that “we have fewer tools for showing that there is more to American culture than Madonna, Michael Jackson and McDonald’s.” And with Helms’s track record of pontificating against controversial art, the U.S.I.A. has become reluctant to fund anything but the most mainstream projects. “Given the possibility that the word will get back to Mr. Helms that an agency of the U.S. government has helped to fund some artists on the order of Mapplethorpe,” the official says, “the chances of even a worthwhile justification being distorted beyond recognition make supporting such a project too risky to the well-being of the overall operation to be worthwhile.”
WITH ALL HIS WORK AS FOREIGN RELATIONS CHAIRMAN, Helms has had less time to pursue his domestic agenda this year. He’s been less effective too. His biggest contribution to the welfare debate—an amendment requiring unmarried, able-bodied food-stamp recipients to work at least forty hours a month—was crushed by a two-to-one margin. His bill to eliminate all affirmative action programs fizzled, as did his Unborn Children’s Civil Rights Act. And his ongoing jihad against homosexuals didn’t get very far: Thanks to maneuvering by more moderate Republicans like Kassebaum, Helms lost his battle to cut funding to the Ryan White CARE Act, which provides services to people with AIDS. Still, the chairman knows that his anti-welfare, anti-gay rhetoric plays well with voters—and he is, after all, running for re-election this year.
The big debate back home is whether Helms has his re-election sewn up, as some pundits say—despite an electorate that’s 56 percent Democratic—or whether North Carolina has evolved into a different kind of state from the one that handed him four successive victories. In the 1990 election, Helms fared best among elderly voters (he received 60 percent of the vote of those over 60) and least well among those under 30. To a generation too young to remember his television commentaries in the sixties (“an unlawfully pitched tent by Negroes in Mississippi is no less an affront to society than, say, efforts by the Ku Klux Klan to set up camp on the lawns of Broughton High School in Raleigh”), Helms is a fossil, an anachronism ready for retirement. And to the thousands of college-educated software engineers and medical researchers moving to suburban Raleigh and Charlotte, he’s often seen as an embarrassment.
But can either of his would-be challengers actually deny Helms another term in the Senate? Until six months ago, the Democratic nomination belonged to former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, an African-American architect who won 47 percent of the vote in his 1990 race against Helms. A longtime progressive with no shortage of charm, Gantt ran hard on the issues of education, abortion rights and environmental protection. But he failed to make the case that Helms’s conservative politics hurt the economic interests of most North Carolinians. When Helms ran a distorted last-minute TV commercial linking Gantt with racial hiring quotas, the Senator erased Gantt’s slim lead in the polls. This time around, Gantt says he plans to focus more on issues like tax fairness, raising the minimum wage and job training. “People have the economy on their minds. They perceive that something out there is not quite fair,” Gantt says. “If I was out there listening to an economic message, I would pay more attention to what the Democrats are saying about leveling the playing field.” The latest poll gives Gantt a statistically insignificant one-point lead over Helms.
But Gantt has been slow to start his campaign, and many eyes have turned to his only serious Democratic challenger: Charlie Sanders, a transplanted Texan who recently retired as chairman of the pharmaceutical giant Glaxo. Sanders hit the campaign trail early, bashing Helms at Washington’s trendy Fifth Column club and raising $750,000 in the first half of 1995, though he lags behind Gantt in the polls. A cardiologist, his focus has been health care: He’s quick to chronicle the ways North Carolinians suffer under the current system. “Fifty percent of our children are going to school without their shots,” he says. “Our elderly people face the prospect of having Medicare cut back. Poor people face the prospect of losing their safety net.” Still, Sanders is a skittish moderate. He considers President Clinton’s health care reform proposal too radical and prefers more incremental measures.
Whoever gets the Democratic nomination, the trick will be convincing North Carolina’s swing voters that Helms’s foreign affairs escapades and gay-bashing amendments don’t make life any better in the Tar Heel State, that a vote for Helms is a vote against Medicare, jobs programs, parental leave, medical care for vets, Head Start. North Carolina Democrats have traditionally been reluctant to campaign on these bread-and-butter issues; perhaps this year they’ll figure out that taking the economic high ground is the only way to cool Helms’s hot buttons.
Below: An obituary for Helms on CBS.