Thursday, February 11, 1999

America’s weakened
status at the U.N.

THE United States has had no ambassador to the United Nations since Bill Richardson left the post in mid-September 1998 to become energy secretary. President Clinton selected Richard C. Holbrooke for the job last June but only this week did the White House announce that the president was ready to send the nomination to the Senate.

The nomination was held up while the Justice Department investigated Holbrooke's financial dealings. Questions were raised about his contacts with government officials after February 1996, when he resigned from the State Department, where he had been assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs, to join an investment firm.

Holbrooke agreed to pay $5,000 to settle civil charges that he violated federal ethics laws. The Justice Department had accused him of the violation in making business contacts with the U.S. embassy in South Korea on behalf of his employer. The law bars former government officials from contacting ex-colleagues about business for one year after leaving government. He denied any impropriety.

Holbrooke is believed to have wide support in the Senate, but it's unlikely that he will be quickly confirmed. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appears to be in no rush to schedule hearings. Helms is expected to use the nomination as an opportunity to press the Clinton administration to support another overhaul of the United Nations.

While the United States goes for many months without full diplomatic representation at the U.N., resentment is building over Washington's failure to pay about $1 billion it owes. Diplomats complain that the United States has repeatedly dangled the payment of its debt as a reward for organizational changes at the U.N., only to renege when the desired changes are made.

Most members of Congress want to repay the debt, but a fight between the White House and Congress on abortion policy has blocked action. Opponents of abortion have succeeded in keeping restrictions on overseas family planning funds in legislation that would have paid off most of the debt, thereby dooming the bill to a presidential veto. The failure to pay the debt may even force Washington to relinquish its seat in the General Assembly, which would be quite a humiliation for the lone surviving superpower.

The result of these conflicts is a weakened American presence at the U.N., which serves neither the U.S. interest nor that of the world organization. Clinton should have nominated someone who could have been confirmed quickly. Congress should eliminate the link between abortion policy and debt payment that is keeping the United States in arrears.


Airline regulations

AIRLINES have enough problems coping with threatened work slowdowns and weather delays without having to deal with menacing tactics like those being proposed in Congress. If enacted, the proposals would provide passengers wide latitude to cancel flights and punish airlines for delays.

The silliest proposal seems to have emerged from House Transportation Chairman Bud Shuster's locker room banter with colleagues. "I can't walk through the chamber or go to the House gym without members telling me the horror stories that they have had, that their constituents have had, in dealing with the airlines," says the Pennsylvania Republican.

Shuster would empower passengers to demand double their money back if held for two hours or more waiting for their flight, triple if delayed for more than three hours, quadruple for four hours and so on. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would force airlines to give passengers 48 hours to cancel tickets that are now nonrefundable.

The complaints followed snowstorms that stranded travelers in Detroit over the New Year's holiday for more than eight hours because planes could not take off or pull into a gate. The only consequence of punishing the airlines for the whims of nature would be to create risks that airlines might take to avoid such payouts. Shuster's proposal also would hand airline unions a powerful weapon in threatening work stoppages or slowdowns.

The proposal to allow passengers late cancelations would hinder airlines trying to fill seats and defeat the purpose of passengers making commitments far in advance to be eligible for reduced fares. Such a law could cause havoc for airlines and force the elimination of bargain fares, which could hurt tourism here.

Flight delays can be bothersome and travel commitments onerous, but they are the result of the realities of adverse weather conditions and the marketplace. Meddling by Congress would only make matters worse.



Banning fireworks

HAWAII isn't the only place with a fireworks problem. China, where gunpowder was invented and where firecrackers are an ancient tradition, not surprisingly has a problem, too -- especially now, with the lunar new year celebration. Unlike Hawaii, the big cities in China ban fireworks. Last week officials in Shanghai seized and destroyed more than 1,000 pounds of illegal firecrackers.

However, the Associated Press reports that the ban is widely ignored and every year there are deaths and injuries resulting from illegal use. The government permits the manufacture of fireworks and this presumably makes fireworks widely available. The industry employs thousands of workers and is valued for its economic importance although fatal accidents are common. Much of the production is for export -- some of it to Hawaii.

It would be much easier here to enforce a ban than it is in China because there is no manufacturing. All it would take is stiff penalties on fireworks sales, strictly enforced.

Take our online fireworks poll

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