Straining at gnats and swallowing camels, as the Bible has it, would seem to be the rule in Congress today. The hazing of G. William Miller before he was finally confirmed to be chairman of the Federal Reserve Board is the latest and one of the most telling examples of the search for gnats.
The qualifications of Miller for this vitally important post was never an issue. The chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis). was pursuing an accusation that Miller was guilty of concealing a bribe paid by Bell Helicopter, subsidiary of Textron, the company that Miller headed until his appointment to the Fed.
Nothing in the three volumes of testimony and documents supported the charge that Gen. Mohammed Khatemi, brother-in-law of the shah, had been paid a bribe of $2.9 million for the helicopter sale to Iran. Repeatedly under oath Miller denied any knowledge of a secret payment to Khatemi.
Yet Proxmire continued to worry the charge like a dog worrying one of those artificial bones meant to satisfy house pets. He wanted the hearings reopened with more evidence produced, which he insisted would support his charge. The members of the committee, in open rebellion, were pressing for an immediate vote.
However important it was for the continuity of the work of the Fed to put in a new chairman, there is something more here than the fate of one individual. When is a commission a bribe? For dealers in the international market, whether in arms or oil-drilling apparatus, that is the key question.
Proxmire undoubtedly believes that arms sales are inherently wrong, as does a sampling of the American public, according to a recent poll. But it is part of a competitive traffic that has a lot to do with America's place in the world, as witness President Carter's proposed sales to the Middle East.
France is among the leading competitors. While French weapons may not measure up to those of the United States, they have been ready to move in when we have pulled back from a deal. Anyone who thinks the French would hesitate to pay a commission or bribe (or both) doesn't know the French.
The game of nations is a rough game, and a self-righteous posture may leave the posturer in lonely isolation. President Carter's human-rights drive has wide support in this country. Noble in objective, it may even on the practical side abate the repressions and cruelties of states that have little or no concern for such rights. But anyone who thinks that Iran, Brazil and Argentina, to take a random sample, are going to become models of democracy and free ideological choice lives in a dream world.
The delay of nearly a month in Miller's confirmation may have done little harm, althought Arthur Burns, the acting chairman since Miller's nomination, has been concerned about the continuity of the Fed's work. He gave the White House a deadline in the ambiguous role of caretaker.
Whatever one thinks of Burn's policies - and the liberals in Congress would like to blame him for everything from the decline in the stock market to the hard winter - he has been a dedicated and faithful public servant. Burns made no secret of his desire for reappointment to a further two-year term as chairman. Given his relationship with Congress, Carter could not have done that.
Although he might have stayed on for another eight years as a member of the board, Burns, in my opinion, wisely decided against that course. He has spoken admiringly of Miller and has been anxious to help see him installed in a difficult and, at this moment in terms of the economy and the money supply, a supremely important position.
Government under our system of divided powers is difficult at best. But the kind of hazing that Proxmire indulged in shows it as its worst. It is a kind of self-righteousness that is costly for the unhappy victim in the witness chair.
The harm done to Miller is probably minor, and the flap over his confirmation will soon be forgotten. Yet as an example of how to put a monkey wrench in the machinery of governemnt, it is one for the textbooks.