Nine Men Who Control Congress
A graduate of Amherst, CHALMERS M. ROBERTS has been a journalist for more than thirty years and is now chief of the national news bureau of the Washington POST. From his vantage point in the nation’s capital he has followed the workings of Congress and of the coalition which has on many occasions blocked effective legislation.
TXWENTY-SEVEN years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the height of his political power after his unprecedented as-Maine-goes-so-goes-Vermont re-election in 1936, launched what came to be known as the Supreme Court “packing” plan. The objects of his wrath were the “nine old men” who, he charged, were rejecting the twentieth century and insisting on a horse-and-buggy approach to the problems of the Great Depression.
With the next congressional election the huge New Deal majorities began to melt. And there was formed in Congress the beginning of a coalition composed of conservative Democrats, mostly Southerners, and of the bulk of the Republicans. Together they gained working control, a control they have largely exercised in the subsequent past quarter century. The coalition has not always prevailed. Each President, by and large, has had his way in foreign policy. But while some new social legislation has been passed and some old measures have been improved, the coalition has blunted legislation on domestic economic issues more often than not.
It was this coalition that Harry Truman fought when he castigated the 80th Congress; it was this coalition which found acceptable the domestic lull of the Eisenhower years; it was this coalition which balked John F. Kennedy; and it is this coalition with which Lyndon B. Johnson is struggling in this election year.
A President, and the Vice President elected with him, alone have a national constituency. They alone must balance the interests of city and suburb, of farm and small town, of white and Negro, of rich and poor, of the special pleaders and the public interest. By contrast, the members of the Senate and the House, elected from smaller and generally far more specialized constituencies, inevitably reflect local or special interests. In time of great crisis they too, like the President, are moved by overriding national interest. But that is the exception. More often we see a President pushing and prodding to win congressional approval of what he considers to be in the national interest.
Perhaps the unseemly scene in the House of Representatives at 5 A.M. last December 21 epitomizes this situation. A new President, then less than a month in office, was defeated on an important issue, this time on a matter of foreign policy involving his right to permit or deny sales of wheat to the Soviet Union. The winner was the coalition. In the end Johnson won a reversal, but not without stirring new animosities and producing new outcries for reform of Congress. That Saturday morning, as dawn broke over the Capitol, a coalition of 26 Democrats, mostly Southerners, and 115 Republicans defeated the President’s backers, 141 to 136. It took a determined White House effort to round up liberal Democratic absentees to overturn this defeat in a 7 A.M. House session just before Christmas.
Under the American system no member is punished for refusing to follow the leadership of the chief of his party, the President, or even for openly campaigning for his opponent. This, of course, is one of the results of the separation-of-powers doctrine so carefully embedded in our Constitution by the Founding Fathers. But it is a doctrine run wild, and there is no reason why those who bolt the party during a presidential campaign should not be punished by losing their seniority in Congress.
But as it stands today, the mere fact that a President has numbers of fellow party members in Congress is in itself meaningless, with only rare exceptions. In the current case, a Democratic President and a Congress two thirds of whose members also are Democrats often find themselves at odds. Whatever success Johnson has in the second session of the 88th Congress will attest to his skill in leadership and in congressional manipulation rather than to any sense of party loyalty or responsibility on the part of the Democratic members.
Central to the American problem today, as in the past quarter century, is what liberal Democratic Senator Joseph S. Clark of Pennsylvania has called the Senate Establishment and, more broadly, the congressional Establishment. By this he means those senior members of the largely Southern Democratic-Republican coalition whose conservative views more often unite them than their party labels divide them.
And because a coalition’s power, like that of any quasi-organized body, is relative to the ability of the men who run it and of those who oppose it, the problem was accentuated in 1961 with the death of Speaker Sam Rayburn and the elevation of Johnson from the Senate Majority leadership to the vice presidency. Both were hemmed in by the coalition, but each, on occasion, could break through. The men who succeeded them, Speaker John W. McCormack and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, only nudge, and that most gently.
Hence it is fair to say that the increasing public dissatisfaction with Congress springs basically from the existence of the coalition but is accentuated by the independent power that weak leadership in House and Senate has given the committee chairmen. These men have become the equivalents of Roman satraps, each the undisputed ruler of his own realm. There are exceptions, but not many.
The present Senate contains a majority of liberal members, or, at least, of moderates, and the House has close to a majority, counting members of both parties so inclined. But the committee system in neither house reflects this fact. As Clark has pointed out, the conservative senior members of the congressional Establishment have carefully packed the key committees, including the committees which handle appointment of members to legislative committees. This has been especially true of the money committees, whose power of the purse may deny the political plums so vital to re-election of members if they are recalcitrant, just as these members deny funds to a President on a critical program. Seniority is followed, or on rare occasions ignored, by the entrenched seniors to further their own ends.
Congress in general follows the seniority system, whereby long service means promotion up the ladder to eventual chairmanships, because no acceptable substitute system has yet been devised. Thus what counts is not only ability but a combination of longevity and a secure political base from which to win continuing re-election. And the best way to keep on being re-elected is to come from a oneparty state, such as those of the Old Confederacy.
This is why since March 4, 1933, the day Franklin D. Roosevelt took his first oath as President, Georgia has had only three senators and Virginia four (one of whom was a seat-warmer for less than five months), whereas the nation’s two most populous states have had twice as many — eight each from California and New York. All the Virginians and Georgians have been Democrats, while four of California’s eight and five of New York’s eight have been Republicans. Today, three of the four Democrats from the two Southern states cited are chairmen of major Senate committees, whereas none of the four senators from the two biggest states has reached that eminence. New York, in fact, has had only five men on the Senate Appropriations Committee in all the history of Congress, and it has none today. One Californian, a Republican, ranks fifth of nine on the minority side of that committee.
If anyone were arbitrarily to list today’s “nine old men” in Congress, old in the use of power, he would probably come up with seven Southerners, an Arizonan, and a Missourian. And he would find that four of the nine are in their eighties, a fifth in his seventies, two in their sixties, and two in their fifties. In this list are Senators Hayden of Arizona, eighty-six, Russell of Georgia, sixty-six, Byrd of Virginia, seventy-six, McClellan of Arkansas, sixty-eight, and Eastland of Mississippi, fiftynine; and Representatives Vinson of Georgia, eighty, Cannon of Missouri, eighty-four, Smith of Virginia, eighty-one, and Mills of Arkansas, the youngest at fifty-four.
They alone do not rule Congress, but they do epitomize coalition rule. To give the list bipartisan coloration the names of Senator Dirksen from Illinois, sixty-eight, and Representative Charles Halleck of Indiana, sixty-three, the GOP leaders, should be added, for they are the chief Republican helpmates.
CONSIDER, first, the men who chair the two Appropriations committees, Hayden in the Senate and Cannon in the House. The soft-spoken Hayden was Arizona’s first House member when the state was admitted to the Union in 1912, and he has been in Congress ever since — in the Senate since March 4, 1927, during the Coolidge Administration. He has directed a flood of golden federal dollars into his state, and he always votes with the Southerners against restricting the filibuster rule.
Cannon, an irascible Missourian, who long ago wrote many of the House rules, has been in Congress since March 4, 1923, when Warren Harding was in the White House. These two old men, eighty-six and eighty-four respectively, have fought and struggled over the rights of their respective bodies to initiate money measures. In 1962, they engaged in a historic battle over just where in the Capitol building should be held the conference meetings to iron out the differing figures approved by the two houses of Congress. The argument sprang from the fact that long ago the Senate acquiesced in a constitutional interpretation that only the House can originate money bills, something it has since regretted. Hayden led a foray to force the House to let half of such bills originate in the Senate, but Cannon resisted, and he won.
The row held up appropriations for months. Cannon based his determination on the constitutional clause which says that “all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives,”but which says nothing about bills appropriating money thus raised. Behind the row is something else: Cannon’s belief that the House alone is a firm guardian of the Treasury and that the Senate is a collection of wasteful spenders.
Cannon rules his own committee with an iron hand, sees to it that vacancies go to men whom he considers sound. It is beyond memory since a dissenter has written a minority report on a committee action; indeed. Cannon has a habit of announcing “unanimous” votes even though individual members sometimes get up enough courage to deny they were on his side regarding some particular spending item. The punishment for those who go off the reservation can be denial of money for a pet project.
The unprecedented delay last year in passing the normal departmental appropriation bills — the last of the twelve was sent to the White House on December 30, a half year late — was due in part to Cannon’s belief that one effective way to hold back the “spenders” is to hold up their money bills.
The practice, when a department has not received its appropriation by the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1, is for Congress to pass a “continuing resolution,” which permits the department to go on spending in the new year at a rate no greater than in the previous year. This practice introduces all sorts of uncertainties. It inhibits the beginning of any programs for fear that no new money, or not enough, will eventually be voted, and it clearly produces a degree of administrative havoc.
NUMBER two man on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the man many believe really runs the committee, is perhaps the single most powerful member of the Senate, if not of the entire Congress: Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia. He is the leader of the Southern bloc and thus of the Democratic section of the ruling congressional coalition. A bachelor, whose hobby is baseball, Russell is second only to Hayden in Senate seniority, having arrived two months before FDR’s first inauguration. Russell, now sixty-six, is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and he has almost always favored giving the military what it wants. In addition, he is the chairman of a key subcommittee which handles the secret affairs of the Central Intelligence Agency, another post of great power.
No senator is more adept at using the rules of the Senate to advantage than is Russell, as his many tactics delaying civil rights have so often demonstrated. But he can use that ability to protect what he considers to be in the best interests of the armed services too. Last fall a number of younger liberal senators were stirred by the argument that the United States is piling up too many nuclear weapons, that it thus is creating an unnecessary “overkill capability which also limits opportunities to make progress on arms control.
Russell warned the Pentagon that in the wake of the nuclear-test-ban treaty, then under Senate debate, a well-handled proposal to trim military expenditures by a sizable amount might roll up as many as thirty or more votes. As one who had joined in the Administration’s cry against American euphoria over the treaty, Russell decided to defeat the anti-overkill measure before it could win support. So the instant the treaty roll call was completed after sixty-seven and one half hours of debate, he had the $43.5 billion defense-budget bill called up for what turned out to be a mere five hours of debate. He knew this was psychologically the right moment to defeat a motion by Senator George McGovern, a South Dakota Democrat, to make a token cut in Pentagon funds. And he knew, too, that some of McGovern’s few publicly recorded supporters had just left town for speechmaking.
The result: a crushing 74 to 2 vote against even a token cut.
Russell can fend off or weaken major bills he opposes with the aid of the Senate rule which requires a two-thirds vote to shut off a filibuster. His tactic is to take a 100 percent negative stand, quietly to let it be known his troops are ready to filibuster, actually to filibuster when he feels that is unavoidable, and in the end to accept what he cannot stop, and to do that in such a way as to preserve his troops for the next battle. The two civil rights measures which passed Congress in 1957 and 1960 went through all these phases and finally passed when Lyndon Johnson, then the Majority Leader, convinced Russell that he. Johnson, had the votes to run over him if he would not yield at a reasonable price. In each case Russell managed to tone down the bill, and thus he was able to claim at least a partial victory.
Time and the two-thirds rule are key elements in Russell’s tactics. His best bet is to delay until the Senate is up against some sort of adjournment deadline or caught in the necessity of passing a money bill or some other measure which has a specific date as a deadline. Bargains then become possible. This year he doubtless has circled on his calendar July 13, the day the Republican National Convention opens in San Francisco.
Russell’s tactics, and his mastery of the committee system in the Senate, generally force a civilrights-minded Administration to get its hill past the House first. Here Russell’s chief aide is Representative Howard W. Smith, the eighty-one-year-old Virginian who heads the Rules Committee. It is far more difficult to delay in the House than in the Senate, because only the Senate rules permit unlimited debate. But Smith, who has been in the House since March 4, 1931, and is now the seventh in seniority among 435 members, is also a master at both delay and forcing a compromise.
A standing practice of the “Judge,”as he is called because of a minor judgeship he once held, is simply to disappear at critical moments. He usually turns up painting a barn on his Shenandoah Valley farm—and he has a convenient number of wellscattered barns. The House Rules Committee is not a legislative body — that is, it does not originate bills; rather it serves as the House’s traffic cop. Its purpose is to schedule floor debate for the orderly consideration of bills approved by the various legislative committees, a necessary function in so large a body.
In many cases, the Rules Committee also serves the useful purpose of taking the heat in regard to measures which neither the President nor the House leaders want, but which have either a powerful lobby working for them or wide public support. Thus, under pressure a member will vote for a bill in a legislative committee while whispering to his friends on Rules to pigeonhole it and thereby prevent a floor vote. This may be a handy device for a member who wants to have it both ways; but it also inhibits many members from joining in efforts to trim the power of the Rules Committee on other counts.
For the most part, members of the Rules Committee come, as does Smith, from safe districts from which they are elected over and over again. 1 hus they are generally impervious to pressures, even presidential pressure. It took a massive effort, including the power of the late Speaker Rayburn, to enlarge die committee’s size slightly at the outset of the Kennedy Administration in order to create a narrow pro-Administration majority on most measures. But this is a very uneasy majority; often the conservative Democrats, led by Smith and the man who sits next to him in line, Mississippi Dixiecrat William M. Colmer, a thirty-one-year veteran, combine with the conservative Republicans, led by the ranking GOP member. Representative Clarence J. Brown, a twenty-five-year veteran from Ohio.
Rules meets on no regular schedule but only at the call of the chairman, unless a majority can be rounded up to overturn him, generally an unlikely prospect. The Judge knows how to bend to the wind, but he does so only at the last possible moment. In regard to the current civil rights battle, last fall after the House Judiciary Committee, the legislative committee concerned, finally voted out a bill, he said that he had “no plans” to consider the measure despite the new President’s urging. Then, as the pressure mounted, he said he would let his committee consider the bill “sometime’ in January; eventually, after a House petition was filed to bypass his committee and 165 ol the necessary 218 signatures had been obtained, he agreed to let the House vote by February 11.
Smith and other coalition members on Rules have opposed just about every measure authorizing spending that has come along the legislative pike, though appropriation bills do not have to run its gamut. Aid-to-education bills, for example, do. In 1960, Rules killed a general aid-to-education measure, though it already had passed both houses in differing forms. The Rules Committee blocked it by simply refusing permission to send it to conference. Under House rules, a measure must obtain unanimous consent on the floor before it can be sent to conference, or else it must win a “rule" from Rules.
The two other powerful House chairmen — Carl Vinson of Armed Services and Wilbur D. Mills of Ways and Means — are sometimes for, sometimes against, the President; not just the current President but any President. Both are more liberal than Smith or Cannon, but each reflects a Southern Democratic background, and each knows power and how to use it. A Chief Executive who does not treat them as the largely independent satraps they are does so at great peril.
Mills was a Rayburn protege and seemed to be in line for the speakership until he signed the Southern manifesto condemning the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision barring public school segregation. He is Mr. Taxes in the House because Ways and Means has the undisputed right to set or juggle the manifold tax rates and schedules of the federal government. A careful, often cautious man, now only fifty-four though already a twenty-five-year veteran, Mills never risks bringing a bill to the House floor until a nose count shows he has the votes necessary for passage. His power over taxes means that any President must come to terms with him. The tax-cut measure which passed the House last year under his expert guidance was compounded more to Mills’s prescription than to that of the Kennedy Administration.
The Ways and Means Committee also serves as a sort of committee on committees for the Democratic majority in that its members make the assignments to the other legislative committees. In fact, the Speaker and his top assistants have a major hand in such selections, too, but this function of Ways and Means adds to Mills’s power.
If Mills is Mr. Taxes in the House, Vinson is Mr. Military. Known affectionately as Uncle Carl, approvingly as the Swamp Fox, and with great respect as the Admiral, he is almost regal as he sits on the chairman’s dais in his committee room surrounded by tiers of seats, the lowest ones occupied by junior members of his thirty-seven-member group. Vinson, who has served in the House longer than any man in history, first won his seat on November 3, 1914, during the Wilson Administration.
He once dismissed a rumor that he might be named Secretary of Defense by saying, “Shucks,
I’d rather run the Pentagon from up here.” He has a habit of putting the military brass in its place by such questions as, “What did you say your name was, Admiral?”
Vinson has usually backed the armed services in their requests for new weapons and more pay, tangling, on occasion, with the civilian Pentagon leaders. He once tried to get Congress to “direct” President Kennedy to spend money for the RS-70 bomber, which both the President and Defense Secretary McNamara opposed. In the end Vinson backed down, but it took a lot of doing to produce a verbal “compromise” and thus prevent a rupture in the vital relationship between the chairman and the Pentagon leadership. Vinson also has been constantly on the alert against any hint of executive efforts to move in the direction of a single military chief of staff.
During the Kennedy Administration, Vinson on key occasions helped round up some critical Southern votes on nondefense issues. No doubt President Johnson will be sorry when Vinson retires this fall after fifty years’ service and is succeeded in the chairmanship by Representative L. Mendel Rivers, a fire-eating Dixiecrat from Charleston, South Carolina, now in his twenty-fourth year in Congress. Rivers is an active lieutenant in the coalition leadership.
Smith, Mills, and Vinson all are masters of their own houses with rare exceptions; each rules his fief, and to each must come both the Speaker’s and the Administration’s emissaries, as though they were coming to negotiate with a foreign potentate.
Halleck, as the House Republican leader, who personally mirrors his flock’s conservative views, knows how to work with each of the three and with others among the Democrats who rank high on their committees. The resulting coalition, essentially a union of conservative views on domestic economic issues, is sometimes broken, but for the most part it has effectively held this past quartetcentury.
IN THE Senate, three other powerful committee chairmen, all Southern Democrats, deserve consideration: Harry F. Byrd of Finance, John L. McClellan of Government Operations, and James O. Eastland of Judiciary. Each is to be reckoned with in his own right; each is a trooper in Dick Russell’s band of determined Southerners; each is important in the coalition. Indeed, the powerful Southern senators form a sort of interlocking directorate on the key committees. Russell is next to Hayden on Appropriations, on which McClellan also serves. Byrd is two behind Russell on Armed Services, with Eastland’s fellow Mississippian, John Stennis, in between them.
Byrd, the ruddy-faced apple grower from Virginia who is now seventy-six, arrived in the Senate the day FDR was first inaugurated. Russell is the floor leader of the Southern Democrats, but in a way Byrd is the spiritual leader. It was he who issued the cry for “massive resistance” to the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision, and it is Byrd to whom the dissatisfied Southern electors like to give their presidential votes when they oppose the Democratic nominee. Virginia is ruled today by something called the “Byrd machine,” though it has been thirty-four years since he was the Old Dominion’s governor. Yet once he passed the word that he would not support Adlai Stevenson, and later John Kennedy, his Democratic followers knew they were free to vote, as they did, for Eisenhower and then Nixon, both of whom carried his state. His machine is far more efficient, through its courthouse crowd and its poll tax limitation on voters, both white and Negro, than most of the more infamous Northern big-city bossrun machines.
It was Byrd who refused even to consider joint hearings with Mills on the Kennedy tax-cut bill. He would do nothing until the months-long, tortuous House course had been fully run. Then he embarked on his own lengthy and largely repetitious hearings, so that an entire year and more elapsed between the time President Kennedy first proposed the measure and the moment that it could even reach the Senate floor for consideration. He denied, of course, that he had either been filibustering the tax bill, which he opposed, or playing for time to create a logjam which would help Russell delay the civil rights measure. But he served both purposes admirably.
A fellow Southerner, Arkansas’s J. William Fulbright, was so ungentlemanly as to vote with some Northern liberals in a vain effort to force a tax-bill speedup because, Fulbright told Byrd, his fellow Arkansan Mills favored it. At this, Byrd bitterly asked Fulbright how he would like it if his hand were forced in the Foreign Relations Committee, which Fulbright heads.
Byrd has voted against every welfare-state measure, beginning with Social Security and the Wagner labor act; he has opposed foreign aid, beginning with the Marshall Plan, but he has always been for big military spending, just as Russell has. At one point when Representative Smith was holding up civil rights and Byrd was delaying the tax cut, one of Virginia’s few anti-Byrd newspapers, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, epitomized the result in this headline: “2 Bills, 2 Virginians, 2 Delays.”
Eastland is the cigar-chewing arch-segregationist and Dixiecrat from Mississippi who caused a Senate stir with his remark during the 1960 civil rights battle. When another senator asked unanimous consent to put into the Congressional Record the Supreme Court’s rulings in two voting cases, Eastland retorted: “I object. I don’t want the Record cluttered up with such crap.”
Any judicial appointment of a liberal or even of a moderate, whether he be Chief Justice Warren or anyone else, can expect to face both delay and inquisition from Eastland. One criticism in Washington of Attorney General Robert Kennedy has been that he let Eastland have a hand in naming some judges in the South, including Eastland’s onetime college roommate, now District Judge Harold Cox of Mississippi. Cox on ascending the bench immediately proved to be a Southern thorn in the justice Department’s civil rights actions.
Eastland’s boast during his 1954 re-election campaign was that he “saw to it that no antilynching. anti-poll tax. FEPC or anti-segregation legislation ever reached the Senate floor,”and that is indeed true. Although he heads the Judiciary Committee, a body which should uphold the nation’s judicial system, Eastland has said the South “will not abide by nor obey” the Supreme Court’s desegregation rulings because they are “political” decisions. He praised Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, in the Ole Miss rioting over the admission of the Negro James Meredith, as a man who was “protecting and preserving the Constitution.”
Because no Senate majority has been able to get a civil rights bill out of Eastland’s committee, the Senate has been forced to hold off consideration until the House has acted, then to intercept the House bill at the Senate door and send it directly to the Senate floor in order to bypass Eastland. This is a time-consuming process, which, coupled with Smith’s delaying tactics in the House, plays into Russell’s hands.
Senator McClellan’s power arises from a number of factors: he is the eighth-ranking senator, he heads an important Appropriations subcommittee, and, above all, he is chairman of the Government Operations Committee, which more than any other Senate committee exercises that body’s vast power to conduct public inquiries. This softspoken, ultra-conservative Arkansan has specialized in labor matters, and some of his hearings, such as those investigating the activities of James R. Hoffa and his Teamsters, have had a salutary effect, while others, such as those involving gangster Joseph Valachi, made the committee look like a circus ring. McClellan’s hearings, for a long time run with the help of Robert Kennedy as the committee’s counsel, did produce some reforms, but the committee’s work often seemed more designed to shackle organized labor than to free it. And the lengthy Valachi hearings had the effect of creating a delay of more than a half year in passing the money bill for the State Department. McClellan was too busy wearing his investigative hat to conduct hearings under his Appropriations subcommittee hat.
If Congress is increasingly being held in ill repute by the public, the blame can be widely shared. But the focus of the blame must be on the Establishment run by the coalition. And in that inner group of powerful men are the committee chairmen and others discussed here. They are the men who have made the rules and who insist on keeping them, however archaic they may seem to most Americans, because they serve a purpose for the coalition.
The system of checks and balances is one of man’s wisest political inventions. But it has run wild in the congressional system. There have been congressional revolts before against the tyranny of the minority, and there will, in time, be a revolt against the present tyranny. But until there is and until it is won. Congress will continue to be unable to do its part of the job in running a democracy.