LAST WEEK it appeared that the long-delayed nomination of Richard Holbrooke to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations might finally be nearing a vote on the Senate floor. The Foreign Relations Committee approved it, having held it up for a number of months. The White House had held it up even longer pending the outcome of an ethics investigation.

No sooner had the committee acted, however, than Majority Leader Trent Lott let it be known that holds had been placed on the nomination by several senators, whom his office did not identify. Sen. Charles Grassley subsequently announced that he was one of the objectors; he seeks satisfaction in an unrelated State Department personnel matter.

Now it turns out that Sen. Lott himself, although he never said so, was another; Sen. Mitch McConnell is the third. Mr. Lott and Mr. McConnell are objecting because the president has thus far declined to name their choice, a professor named Bradley Smith, to a vacancy on the Federal Election Commission.

The president hasn't named him in part because Mr. Smith has made clear in writings and elsewhere that he doesn't believe in the mission of the commission, which is to regulate campaign finance. That of course is precisely the attribute that commended him to Sens. Lott and McConnell, who are the leading Senate obstacles to campaign finance reform.

They are wrong on the issue of campaign finance. The current system is a scandal that undermines public faith in the political and legislative processes and threatens to bring down the very people that it helps elect. The never-strong FEC should be made more aggressive, not less.

The senators commit a more serious abuse by taking advantage of a backstairs procedure to hold the Holbrooke nomination hostage. The nomination and the nominee, a distinguished diplomat, both have waited too long. This is a petty act in the name of a suspect cause; they ought to back off.