Do you have friends or family in North Carolina or Mississippi? Then do yourself -- do all of us -- a favor. Beg them to call Jesse Helms and Trent Lott and demand an end to their outrageous refusal to allow Senate consideration of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Mississippi's Lott, the Senate majority leader, and North Carolina's Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are peevishly, recklessly and -- most of all -- dangerously bottling up the ban on nuclear weapons testing that, by all logic, the Senate should be ratifying.
The treaty was concluded in 1996 after 40 years of bipartisan effort. The United States was the first to sign. President Clinton on that occasion called the treaty "the longest-sought, hardest-fought prize in the history of arms control." Since then 151 other nations have signed; 41 have ratified. Until the U.S. Senate ratifies it, however, the test ban treaty cannot go into force for any country.
The United States has already stopped testing nuclear weapons. Precluding other nations from testing, as this verifiable treaty would do, is powerfully in the interests of this and other countries. Lott and Helms's refusal to allow hearings is not based on the merits of the treaty. They are using it as leverage toward their own agendas -- holding the treaty hostage to goad Clinton to send other, unrelated matters to the Senate.
If allowed to go to the Senate floor, the treaty appears all but certain to be ratified; it has strong support in both parties. Yet the Helms-Lott impetuosity has continued for a year and a half, with only an occasional, ineffectual protest from one or another supporter of the treaty.
Finally, this month, treaty backers showed signs of life. President Clinton -- who could, if he invested enough of himself, put this issue onto the public agenda so squarely that Helms and Lott could never get away with their recklessness -- gave a brief and fairly lackluster speech, in which he called for hearings.
More vigorous action came from a group of senators of both parties, who fielded a lively news conference in which they called for an end to Helms's and Lott's stonewalling.
"The unwillingness of Trent Lott to allow us to debate this treaty, the unwillingness of the Foreign Relations Committee to even bring up the treaty, is counterintuitive. It is irresponsible, it is against the interests and wishes of the American people, it overrides the vast majority of the view of the United States senators, and it is stupid. It is stupid," said Delaware's Joseph Biden, a Democrat.
"There will be a price to pay, and we plan on making them pay that price if they continue this irresponsible action."
Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said the treaty is a "a matter of survival. . . . My view is that not enough Americans really understand what is going on, because if more people understood what was going on, there would be a demand on the Senate to act and to act favorably."
Public opinion on the treaty is overwhelmingly positive, as a bipartisan poll released at the news conference confirmed. Eight in 10 Americans support the treaty; 14 percent disapprove. Pollster Mark Mellman said at the Capitol, "The support is wide, the support is deep, the support is broad across every demographic-geographic segment of the country. And that support for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban is impervious to the kind of arguments made by the opponents."
Added Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota: "There is nothing on the Senate agenda -- nothing, in my opinion -- that is more important than this. We spend days around here debating what we ought to name an airport. . . . This comes under the category of the `Biggest Issue.' The issue of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons on this earth is the biggest issue."
President Eisenhower said that not achieving a nuclear test ban "would have to be classed as the greatest disappointment of any administration of any decade of any time and of any party."
That was in 1961. Almost 40 years later, Helms and Lott hold the treaty's success or failure in their tight little grip, and only a full-fledged showing of public outrage can jar it loose.