The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Washington
WITH all its faults, the American voting system has one great virtue lacking in the totalitarian nations: it measures and discloses the changing moods and desires of the people of the United States. The measure is not perfect - too many fail to vote or arc prevented from voting, and some votes are registered disproportionately. Often the issues are befogged by political maneuvering, or they are oversimplified or deliberately distorted for partisan gain. American elections have made possible peaceful change within the nation, with the single tragic exception of the leadership failure which led to the Civil War.
The 86th Congress, now about to meet, reflects a major shift in the voters’ opinions. President Eisenhower said, the day after the Republican debacle, that he had tried to keep the nation sound financially and to work for peace, and “if they [the voters] want me to do anything else, I don’t know exactly what it is.” But somehow the voters knew they wanted something they were not getting from the Eisenhower Administration. And they showed it at the polls.
On domestic issues the voters wanted the center of gravity in Washington to move several degrees to the Left. Regarding foreign policy, the voters showed an uneasiness over Dulles’ brinkmanship and the declining world position of the United States vis-à-vis the Communist bloc. At least, these are the judgments of most Washington political observers after having reflected on the election returns.
Such judgments raise many questions. What can the new Congress do about these signs and portents from the voters? Especially, what can the overwhelmingly Democratic Congress do in the foreign policy field while Eisenhower and Dulles remain in control of the Administration two more years; and what can the Congress do in the domestic field when even the influx of liberal Democrats hardly more than brings a balance between the Northern and Western liberals (mostly Democrats but with a number of Republicans included) and the conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and old-guard GOP members? Finally, what do the election returns mean for the future of the Republican Party? And how will they affect the 1960 presidential election?
What will Congress do?
The immediate reaction of the stock market was the same as Eisenhower’s: the “spenders” had won, and more money would pour forth from the federal Treasury. In a sense, this is correct. There will be a new measure to replace the depressed-areas aid bill vetoed last summer by the President. There will be efforts to make federal supplemental unemployment a permanent policy and to force higher state standards. There will be more money pumped into urban renewal, redevelopment, and slum clearance, and there will be further efforts to increase expenditures for public housing.
There will be labor’s almost instantaneous demand for raising the minimum wage from $1 to $1.25 an hour. There will finally emerge a new labor bill, aimed at the labor racketeers, but not before a major squabble takes place over altering the Taft-Hartley Act, especially the section permitting states to enact right-to-work laws.
But the Congress will not run hog wild. The new men are not the Northern and Western “radicals” the President, Vice President Nixon, and GOP Chairman Meade Alcorn tried to frighten the voters into thinking they were. The best measure of this fact is that the extremist in the Democratic camp, Governor G. Mennen Williams of Michigan, won this time by a reduced margin.
Filibuster control in the Senate
The first issue between the liberal and conservative Democratic wings in both Senate and House will be one of procedure. In the Senate, the issue will be liberalization of the filibuster rule which now requires an impossible two thirds of all the senators — not just those present and voting — to limit debate.
That this rule was going to be changed was a foregone conclusion even before the election; the Southerners knew it and were ready to fall back to a well-prepared position, accepting two thirds of those present and voting. The thirteen-seat Democratic gain (not counting the Alaska results) imperils this Southern solution. The Democratic liberals, both out of their own conviction and because of their estimate that Nixon, if he is the GOP nominee in 1960, will make civil rights the chief issue, are talking of changing the filibuster rule so that a constitutional majority, one more than half the total membership (fifty votes, now that Alaska has two senators), can cut off debate after an appropriate period — say, two weeks.
The outcome is still cloudy, because involved in the attack on the current rule is the issue of whether or not the Senate is a continuing body inasmuch as only one third of its membership is elected in any one year. Here the Southerners have a powerful ally in Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. He has urged a change to the two thirds presentand-voting plan, but he is traditionalist enough to resist any change in the concept of a continuing body.
The House Rules Committee
In the House, where minorities arc swept to one side by debate limitation and the power of the Speaker, the focus of liberal discontent is onee again the House Rules Committee. Here a conservative coalition has hamstrung legislation, because the Rules Committee must clear all bills before they can reach the floor for a vote.
The Rules Committee in the past has often served as a useful restraint. On occasion, congressmen have bowed to public pressure and have voted for measures in committee despite their own misgivings, secure in the knowledge that Rules would pigeonhole the measure. But the pigeonhole has become all-embracing of late. Some change thus is indicated early in the new Congress.
Hardly had the votes been counted when schemes to effect that change began to emerge. Among these were plans to enlarge the Democratic membership by adding liberals and a return to the twenty-one-day rule, in use in the past when liberals were powerful, under which a bill can be brought to a floor vote after three weeks despite a negative Rules Committee vote. Some change is coming here, as in the Senate filibuster rule.
But neither house will alter the seniority system under which those from the “safe” states and districts work their way to the powerful committee chairmanships and stay there, regardless of the changing moods and desires of the nation. Southern Democrats, mostly conservatives in economic matters, will continue to hold the bulk of the chairmanships. But the addition of thirteen new senators and forty-eight new representatives, largely liberal Democrats, will mean new pressures on the committee chairmen which they can resist less easily than in the previous, narrowly divided Congress, where they had conservative GOP support on most committees. This seniority system has long been under attack. But it has prevailed because it has proved to be flexible enough, in the main, to give way to majority pressures. The pressure of events
In both domestic policy and foreign affairs, the controlling factors are to be found in the course of events: what happens to the economy at home, what happens around the globe. There is certainly no reason to doubt that events abroad, looked at in terms of the interests of the United States and of the free world, are going to get worse before they get better. The Communist bloc is gaining in the economic race. Politically, instability is the word for the Middle East, for most of Asia, and increasingly so for both Africa and Latin America. Eruptions hither and yon are a certainty.
Secretary Dulles has no idea of resigning. He will make more of a show of cooperation with the Democratic congressional leadership. But he is largely incapable of true cooperation, being the kind of foreignpolicy-in-the-hat operator that he is. And true cooperation is largely a fiction anyway, since the Constitution assigns responsibility for setting foreign policy to the executive branch. The result more likely will be increasing congressional harassment of Dulles and less sparing of the President now that he is in the final two years of his lame-duck Administration.
The foreign policy prospect is, in fact, appalling. The President, with a $12 billion deficit on hand for the current fiscal year, is trying to trim the new budget. This will mean all sorts of battles with Congress on domestic programs, but the big money cuts are possible only in the foreign defense field. Here the rising chorus of criticisms over defense policies will mean continual fighting with a Congress which will be in a mood to spend more.
In the foreign economic field the President’s budget will please hardly anyone. To those who see the critical danger in Communist economic warfare of all sorts — and this includes many within the Administration itself—the Eisenhower proposals will seem tragically short of the needs. Yet the conservative Republicans and increasingly economic isolationist Southern Democrats will combine, especially in the House, once again to pare even the Eisenhower requests. Here, also, the outcome in Congress will depend to a large extent on the course of world developments.
The future of the GOP
If there is any one measure of agreement among Washington observers, it is that one of the great failures of the Eisenhower Administrations has been the President’s failure to reshape his own party. “Modern Republicanism,” said conservative GOP Senator Styles Bridges, “will fade away.” Premature obituaries have too often been written for both the major parties. It would be foolish to write one for the GOP today. But the party’s problem is worth examination.
The fact is that the Democrats last November piled up a large majority not only in Congress, They also increased their governorships to thirtyfive, including Alaska, and they took over control of both houses of twelve state legislatures not held before. Included in this last group were the legislatures of California, Massachusetts, and Ohio.
These legislature changes within the states constitute the real measures of Democratic strength across the nation. For the state legislatures are usually rurally dominated and so gerrymandered as to all but preclude liberal control. In many ways, they have been the last fortress of conservative Republicanism.
What has happened? The only answer would appear to be that the voters want government, state as well as national, to do a lot more for them than it has been doing - and that their general impression is that the Republicans are the standpatters and the Democrats the party of action. So the people voted Democratic. Local issues include the whole range of public functions: schools, roads, public health and welfare, unemployment aid, housing.
The Republicans in many places seemed to be running against Walter Reuther. Indeed, in perhaps half the states GOP candidates tried to make him an issue as a symbol of evil, grasping labor dictatorship, of increased government, often labeled socialism. The voters’ response was more sophisticated.
The Republican politicians seemed to know less about the changing nature of the United States than did the voters. The President likes to keep his speeches up to date with the latest estimate of total population. But he and his associates seem not to realize the meaning of those figures. The voters, en masse, may not have either an economist’s or a sociologist’s view, but the election returns showed that they felt they knew something of the problems resulting from an expansive America and wanted something more done about them.
In The Affluent Society John Kenneth Galbraith attacks what he calls “the conventional wisdom” in the field of economics. The election returns were an attack on the conventional wisdom espoused by the Republican Party, a belief that government per so tends to be bad and that private enterprise per se is superior, and therefore that the public ought to beware of “Left-wing radicals” and “socialism.” Perhaps the first job of the Republican Party’s self-criticism session should be to examine the changing nature of the United States itself. Political parties die when they fall behind the times.
The great schism in the Democratic Party over civil rights, specifically over public school desegregation, is enough to keep the GOP going for some time. While many in Washington are convinced that there will be a third party in the South in 1960, they do not believe that the Northern-Western Democrats will wholly break with the South. Certainly, Lyndon Johnson’s whole effort in the next two years will be to build a Democratic congressional record designed to avoid such a breach.
Looking toward 1960
The 1960 election may revolve on points still obscure today. Will the segregationists so harden the issue that no progress is possible, by tactics such as the write-in vote which defeated moderate Representative Brooks Hays of Little Rock? Or will Virginia give way to local option within the state, thus pointing an honorable way toward gradual compliance with the Supreme Court’s mandate?
The Democrats have a multiplicity of presidential candidates but no outstanding, obvious leader. The Republicans now have two candidates, Nixon and New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Nixon’s tactic will be to move to the liberal side of the GOP. His instant reaction to the emergence of Rockefeller was to discount the idea that he would play Taft to Rockefeller’s Lisenhower in 1960. Nixon’s position was: I am an internationalist, not an isolationist as was Taft, and I supported Rockefeller within the Administration when he was an Eisenhower assistant — so what have we to fight about?