The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Washington

A FEW weeks after the Kaiser’s legions attacked Verdun in early 1916, a young man less than a year out of Harvard turned up in Berlin, where he was to serve briefly as an attaché in the American Embassy. He was Christian A. Herter, then twenty-one. Four months after Herter moved from Berlin to Brussels, the United States entered World War I. Today Herter, as Secretary of State, faces a new Berlin and a new German crisis.

With years of excellent experience behind him, Herter is the nation’s front-line negotiator as the United States is involved in a new round of talks with the Soviet Union. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Dean Achcson and John Foster Dulles, he has an enormous reservoir of good will in the Congress, where he served well for a decade. Washington is hopeful that Hertcr will measure up to the job. but he will have to prove that he has toughness as well as charm and intelligence.

The Democratic leadership

A lopsided congressional majority usually is hard to handle. This is more true in the Senate, with its all but unlimited debate and smaller membership, than in the House, where talk is limited and the Speaker is extremely powerful. In last year’s election the Democrats came within a fraction of controlling two thirds of the seats in each chamber. Speaker Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Johnson at once went to work to make sure the situation would not get out of hand when the new Congress assembled. Rayburn throttled a move by House Democratic liberals to relax the grip of the Southern Democratic-Republican control over the key Rules Committee. He promised that no major bill would be allowed to die there, and he has lived up to his word.

In the Senate, Johnson moved several degrees to the left of his previous position at the center of the party’s membership, a move he felt was indicated by the election returns. To Johnson, the returns meant more moderates but not more liberals among his team, as he likes to call it. He felt he was proved correct in his analysis by the compromise measure, voted just alter Congress convened, to moderate but not to liberalize the Senate’s filibuster rule.

Joe Clark rebels

Johnson knew, and expected, that some of the Democrats would revolt against his policy of touching all bases and then coming up with a compromise. First it was Wisconsin’s Proxmirc; then it was Oregon’s Morse and Michigan’s McNamara. But an incident in April involving Pennsylvania’s Senator Joseph Clark appeared to many Capital observers as the first real sign of trouble ahead for both Johnson and the Democratic Party itself in Congress.

Clark was one of the majority of senators who voted to liberalize a measure temporarily to extend federal unemployment insurance, despite Johnson’s objection that to do so was to court a presidential veto and thereby kill any extension of the law. The liberalization vote was washed out in a Senate-House committee agreement, however. What riled Clark and a good many other Senate Democrats was the cavalier way their majority vote was ignored by the conference group. That group, dominated by conservative Senator Byrd, who heads the Finance Committee, took exactly twenty-one minutes to throw out the Senate amendment.

Clark was boiling. He finally sat down and wrote Johnson a letter warning the leader that the “younger Democrats” were becoming “more restless and frustrated week by week,” not just because of this one incident but because it typified their feeling that they were not given a chance to be heard on party policy issues. After all, Clark could argue with good reason, unemployment and how to meet it were a matter of major national concern and therefore of major party concern in terms of creating a record on which to run in 1960.

Johnson, a sensitive, often vain man, took all these criticisms in silence. For Clark has one of the Senate’s best intellects; he represents the modern liberal element in the party from the great centers of American population; he is no maverick; and he has been one of the few members of Congress willing publicly to propose raising taxes if necessary to meet increased federal responsibilities, beginning with more defense.

Clark had been trying quietly to move Johnson by suggesting months earlier the addition to the generally conservative Senate Democratic Policy Committee of such liberals as Senator Humphrey of Minnesota. And he avoided the brash outcry of Morse, who charged the Senate Democratic leadership, meaning Johnson, with becoming the “collusive ally” of the Eisenhower Administration.

Johnson acts

Johnson’s answer to Clark came not in a speech but in action, a typical Johnson maneuver. At the AFL-CIO-sponsored unemployment mass meeting in Washington’s National Guard Armory, shortly after the Clark protest became known, Johnson, with labor’s prior agreement, proceeded to start a fire under the Administration.

He proposed, and the Senate next day approved, setting up a committee, named partly by Congress and partly by the Administration, to tour the unemployment centers and to report back with recommendations on how to meet the issue. His play was, in effect, to use this device to get around a prospective Eisenhower veto.

It is not correct to say that this maneuver came only as Johnson’s answer to Clark. But it did help make up Johnson’s mind that he had to act to keep such complaints from turning into a much more serious revolt against his leadership.

The problem, of course, is not just that two thirds of the seats in Congress are held by Democrats. The problem is that under the American constitutional system there is no such thing as real party responsibility, as that term is meant in the British and some other parliamentary systems of government. Johnson cannot by rule enforce his view; nor can a majority ol the party’s members in either house bind their fellows to any policy by a caucus vote.

In the face of these obvious facts, Johnson has worked with great skill to hold his party together, to find a consensus on critical issues, and to accent the positive rather than the negative in legislation. Perhaps the historians will judge his approach the right one; certainly the senator is convinced that his “come, let us reason together” philosophy is the only possible approach and that the record has borne him out.

Johnson’s method is to sound out all wings of the party membership before letting a measure reach a vote. He usually supports what he takes to be the consensus of what is possible in terms of votes. And therefore he usually gets his way. He is a back-room operator. One new senator who for years had served in the House remarked on Johnson’s success this way: in the House, a congressman would never think of going to Speaker Rayburn on a personal basis the way a senator approaches Johnson, asking favorable treatment for some measure, unless it were a matter of utmost gravity.

The fact that the complaints in the Senate have not come from any of the newly elected Democrats is a source of pride to Johnson. As he sees it, the reason is that he has correctly judged the election returns. Some observers, however, believe that Johnson by his careful courtesies, including committee assignments, has the new members so indebted to him that they see no reason to complain. But if history offers any lesson, the times will make the issues, and the issues will bring new pressures on Johnson for more liberal legislation.

The power of the purse

The Bureau of the Budget, which is part of the executive office of the President, is formally charged “to assist the President in the preparation of the budget and in the formulation of the fiscal program of the government” and to “supervise and control the administration of the budget.” At last count, budget director Maurice H. Stans had 422 people working for him. But this is a bare-bones description of one of the most powerful agencies, and one of the least known, in Washington.

In a sprawling democracy the power of the purse is vast. In Congress, the appropriation committees of blouse and Senate more often than not have the last word on what kind of program the Administration can operate, be it for foreign aid or for controlling hoof-and-mouth disease. Downtown, it is the Budget Bureau which dominates the spending plans, as laid down by Congress, of each and every segment of the Administration. And in a situation, such as now exists, where the director is in full agreement with the President, the Budget Bureau often is more powerful than the functioning agencies themselves.

Stans is a quiet man of independent wealth who is as dedicated as Eisenhower to the theory of budget balancing. One would never suspect in talking with him that he and his wife are enthusiastic big-game hunters who find relaxation in African safaris. In and out of Washington since 1953, Stans became budget director in early 1956 in the midst of an economy wave then sweeping the Capital. It is Stans who enforced the presidential orders to present a balanced budget this past January and who has been hammering at every agency to hold the line. And Stans, along with Treasury Secretary Anderson, strongly backed the President against Vice President Nixon, Labor Secretary Mitchell, and others in the Administration who wanted a tax cut in mid-1958 to stem the recession.

Because Stans has a group of employees who spend a lot of time ferreting out duplication and questioning this and that program, he has become a villain to many administrators — and military leaders — who feel that their projects are essential. In a sense, the budget director has become a lightning rod to take some of the shafts which otherwise might be aimed at the President.

Congress can vote funds the President does not want, but it is difficult to make him spend the money. One story will illustrate. Some time ago Congress passed an appropriation bill for veterans’ hospitals which contained a specific provision for $2 million for a hospital at McKinney, Texas, which happens to be in Speaker Rayburn’s district. But Budget refused to spend the money. It was spent only after Rayburn himself faced the President with a startling question: “I think you believe in carrying out the law, don I you, Mr. President?” Eisenhower had never heard about McKinney’s hospital, but he decided it would be wise to spend that $2 million.

Some consider the Budget Bureau Washington’s “invisible government or an unseen “third force” in the Capital. Others think it is a watchdog in the fiscal jungle, without whose services the government would rapidly go broke. But no one will deny that it is one of the least-known and most powerful agencies of government — and that Stans faithfully serves Eisenhower’s purposes.

Mood of the Capital

Washington is full of conferences and meetings, and hardly any of them lack a senatorial presence. But it took Tennessee’s senator Albert Gore, one of the Senate’s bright young men, to start up a school for his Democratic colleagues.

Gore is one of the middle group of senators, in terms of seniority, who often feel frustrated because they lack the power of their seniors. He also is aware that many senators, especially those who do not serve on the key committees, feel inadequately informed on the great foreign and domestic issues.

On a Dutch-treat basis, he invited his colleagues to meet at a series of dinners held in the Capitol’s old Supreme Court chamber. Here they have been listening to and questioning such men as Henry Kissinger and Raymond Garthoff on foreign policy and Gardner Means on economic issues. Gore expected a dozen or so to turn out for the first meeting. Instead, twenty-four came, and among them the presidential possibilities Johnson, Humphrey, and Symington.

A couple of hours over dinner probably will not resolve questions on great issues. But this is the kind of discussion, lacking the public trappings of senatorial hearings, which helps to clarify thinking. And the very fact that so many have shown interest is in itself a hopeful sign.