on the World Today
THE best single explanation of Lyndon Johnson ‘s brilliant success in this session of Congress is contained in one word, Goldwater. Many of Johnson’s successes could not have been possible except for the effect of the Goldwater episode on history. But there also are significant factors in addition to Goldwater and in addition to the President’s own masterful leadership. They are important to a current understanding of a debate that has run through almost all the pages of our history on the subject of a President’s relations with Congress.
During the Kennedy years many people despaired that the system could work in the modern age. Now many think that it works only because of Johnson’s magic and the heavy Democratic majorities. These factors and others have revolutionized the story of presidential-congressional relations. Today they are vastly different from what they were only three or four years ago.
It is no disparagement of President Johnson’s skill in dealing with Congress to say that circumstances have abetted him and that they hampered his predecessor. The President, being the able politician and leader that he is, has used the circumstances to the best advantage. The result is a marvel of accomplishment.
Kennedy was a rational man who believed that other rational men would act sensibly if the facts were properly presented to them. Johnson has no such faith in human beings. He knows that they must be overwhelmed by argument, that he can never for one moment leave anything to chance, that human nature is often moved more by emotion, fear, and myth than by reason. He smothers wayward Democrats and opposition Republicans with attention, and demands their support in the interest of patriotism, probity, and their own political safety.
When Kennedy was elected by the narrowest of margins in 1960, his party’s strength in Congress was substantially reduced from what it had been in the last two Eisenhower years. The Republicans were defeated in 1960, but they were not without hope. They had picked up twenty-one House seats in the election they lost. They could look forward under all reasonable circumstances to increasing their strength in Congress in 1962, and they did increase it. They were by no means without hope of regaining the presidency in 1964.
Republican strategy as the new Administration took oifice was clear. They must frustrate, discredit, and defeat the new President. They had willing allies, the most powerful of whom was the venerable Representative Howard W. Smith, Virginia Democrat, who was chairman of the House Rules Committee. The shrewd and effective Smith, almost as good a parliamentarian as Lyndon Johnson, often has been called the brains of the Byrd machine. He ran his committee in close cooperation with the Republican leader of the House, Charles A. Halleck of Indiana, a much sharper field marshal than his successor, Gerald R. Ford of Michigan.
Even today Smith is a problem to the Administration. His committee will delay consideration of a bill as long as Smith thinks he can safely do so. He puts every possible roadblock in the way, but he almost never wins the final battle as he did in the old days. His teeth have been pulled. He is aware that the House, with its huge Democratic majority, can override him whenever it chooses to do so. He can hight delaying actions, but he cannot risk a frontal attack.
Working closely with Smith during the Kennedy years was another powerful Democrat, the late Clarence Cannon of Missouri, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Without appropriations, no government can function. And the man who can withhold appropriations or reduce the amount available or hold them up until the last moment can harass an Administration every day of the year. Cannon’s tactics were as formidable as Smith’s. When Kennedy was assassinated in November, 1963. the bulk of the appropriations bills for the fiscal year that had begun the previous July 1 were still unenacted ! The first bruising fight which President Johnson had with Congress was over the appropriations bills, particularly the foreign aid appropriation, which was not enacted until Christmas, six months late.
Now the Appropriations Committee is presided over by the able George H. Mahon of Pexas, an old friend of the President’s. One of the first things Mahon and Johnson did was to box in that old obstructionist, Representative Otto E. Passman of Louisiana. He still retains the chairmanship of the Appropriations subcommittee that handles foreign aid, but the subcommittee has been stacked against him.
Death and defeats also have changed the complexion of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, where the medicare bill languished for years. A few personnel changes in key spots can mean the difference between stalemate and progress.
In the Kennedy years, the Southern Democrats were much more critical of the President than they are today. Since their alliance with the Republicans was much stronger then than now, they occupied a key position and had to be considered in all deliberations. The Kennedy Administration always knew that it would lose on key bills unless it could persuade at least 55 percent of the Southern Democrats to vote with it. Now Johnson can, if he wishes, almost entirely ignore them. He knows that he needs only 15 to 20 percent of the Southern Democratic votes to win in the House.
Moreover, partly because of recent changes in the composition of the Southern electorate, Southern congressmen are more responsive to the White House today than at any time since the first Administration of FDR. On this year’s voting rights bill, for example, which passed the House by the overwhelming vote of 333 to 85, 22 of the 87 Democrats from the Old Confederacy voted for passage. If five years ago anyone had predicted that a quarter of the Southern members would support such a bill, he would have been called a lunatic. Such are the changes that are taking place in the South. One impassioned plea for the voting rights bill came from the Assistant Democratic Leader, Representative Hale Boggs of Louisiana, who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Despite the opposition Kennedy faced in Congress, he won approval of a substantial number of significant measures — Peace Corps, minimum wage, aid to higher education, test-ban treaty, housing, accelerated public works, area redevelopment, the space program, the Alliance for Progress, the UN bond issue, the trade act, railroad featherbedding. He also set the stage for progress on tax reduction, civil rights, aid to elementary and secondary education, medicare, and other far-reachintproposals.
Johnson realized that a consensus had been reached on most of these measures by the time he took office, and as a man of action he mobilized all his formidable resources to push them through Congress.
The leadership of Congress is often criticized, and much abuse has been directed at John W. McCormack of Massachusetts, the Speaker of the House. Yet it must be recorded that he has been an effective Speaker under existing circumstances. He has been ably assisted by House Democratic Leader Carl Albert of Oklahoma and the Assistant Leader, Hale Boggs. Any summary of congressional accomplishments would be incomplete without an acknowledgment that the Speaker, ward politician and bumbling orator though he is, has been a constructive and effective party leader.
Very few persons expected that he would be successful when he succeeded the late Speaker Sam Rayburn. But again, circumstances aided him where they hampered Rayburn. Kennedy feuded with McCormack in Massachusetts politics and was reluctant to see him become Speaker. But before Kennedy’s death, he came to appreciate the fact that McCormack was loyal as well as effective in helping to guide the Administration’s program through the House.
Rebels, one by one
It also is noteworthy that Johnson, who has almost completely revamped the White House staff, has left untouched the Kennedy staff on congrcssional liaison, headed by the able Lawrence F. O’Brien. In recognition of O’Brien’s unique contribution, Johnson has given him the highest salary of any member on the staff. Although changes undoubtedly will be made in the near future, O’Brien’s staff, exactly as it was under Kennedy, has worked exceedingly well with Johnson.
The Senate has been so overwhelmingly Democratic and the opposition, under Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, so moderate that the President’s problems there have been minimal except in the field of foreign policy. While the Senate has given the President strong support on domestic issues, it is concerned over the conduct of foreign policy.
For a while earlier this year there were signs that the Senate would become involved with the President in a debate over Vietnam and the Dominican Republic. But Johnson refuses to become involved in a public debate with anyone. He tackled the rebellious senators privately one by one and persuaded all but two or three to remain relatively quiet, particularly on Vietnam. “How can I conduct a war abroad if you attack me at home?” the President asked the senators.
Many are still unhappy, and a few still speak out, but the Johnson treatment has silenced a considerable number who would like to debate the issues publicly. It is not so much the fear of the President’s powers that silences his critics as the agony of a lengthy confrontation, during which Johnson makes impassioned pleas to patriotism, honor, and loyalty. Far too many people — politicians, editors, businessmen — find it convenient not to question the President.
Looking for a fend?
The Kennedy brothers seem to be the only important personalities who repeatedly probe for weak spots. They are like a thorn in the President’s flesh. He was in a rage over the published criticisms of him which Kennedy supporters made regarding his nomination as Vice President in 1960. His dignity was affronted in a most serious way, and he believes that the Kennedy associates, rather than the Kennedys themselves, are doing all in their power to promote a violent feud, a feud which he recognizes could do him no good.
Whether Robert Kennedy is well advised in the criticisms he makes of the President remains for history to judge. He no doubt thinks that he must maintain his independence, that he, too, has been affronted, and that he needs to rally his own supporters. Yet the office of the presidency is a powerful one; a dissenting party member has not the reach and influence of the President, especially if the President is a gifted politician.
The criticism of Johnson personally reached new highs in Washington this summer. But the President’s popularity throughout the country continues to be high. His general strength remains unchallenged. Washington is fascinated by the Johnson-Kennedy fight, but to date the President is far ahead. The power is in his hands.
It may not always be, of course, and that is why Robert Kennedy wants to prepare his own base. When we look back over the last five years of presidential-congressional relations, for example, it is clear that nothing has changed fundamentally. The five-year presidential record has been impressive; imaginative proposals have been translated into legislation. But if the voters should turn against the President, Congress could quickly recapture its strength to hamstring and destroy.
In giving the Kennedy-Johnson programs its approval, Congress has not abandoned any of its prerogatives or powers or accepted any important reforms. The minor modifications in the rules governing the House Rules Committee could be repealed overnight or made inoperative by a change in the political complexion of Congress. The coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats could be re-formed if another election should give it life. The seniority system has not been touched. The filibuster rules remain the same. Party leadership, now clearly in the hands of the President There has been no fundamental alteration in our system of divided responsibility, of checks and balances, and of the struggle for power between President and Congress. It has taken huge Democratic majorities and unbelievable Republican mistakes to enact the programs of the New Frontier and the Great Society. The record is one which both the President and the Democratic leaders can look to with pride.
In the summer of 1952 Adlai Stevenson set out, reluctantly at first but with growing eloquence and purpose, to seek the presidency of the United States and the power that attends it. He never made it to Washington except as a visitor. (“A funny thing happened to me on the way to the White House,” he remarked with a good-loser’s smile in January of 1953.) But in a rare and real way, he acquired some elements of the power. Others who became President drew heavily on his ideas, on his talents, and on his belief in the American political process. Dozens of the men he attracted to public service were picked to serve Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in crucial roles. His eloquence, his innocence, his goodhumored tolerance worked perhaps more than history books will show to place what is human ahead of what is expedient.
Few will think of him as an angry man, but of all his moments, one of the most eloquent was a moment of passionate anger. It was soon after the defeat of 1952. Disciples who had staked much on Stevenson’s insistence that “talking sense to the American people” would induce mass wisdom were despondent and bitter. Letters, telegrams, words of commiseration expressed disillusionment with the electoral process. “I am disappointed in the American people,” one of his aides remarked. Some others nodded in assent. The defeated candidate flared in anger. “Don’t say that.” he shouted. “Don’t ever say that.” Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it falters, but the process works — Stevenson’s fierce faith in that gave strength and authority to a quiet, modest man.