Lady Bird's Beauty Bill

ELIZABETH BRENNER DREW, Washington writer on government affairs, examines the highway cleanup and beautification bill to ascertain the real winners in this struggle, as she did in the September ATLANTICwith the cigarette-labeling controversy.

BEAUTY cannot be a remote and just occasional pleasure. We must bring it into the daily lives of all our people,” Lyndon Johnson told the White House Conference on Natural Beauty last May, “and none of it is going to be easy.”

The President is a realist, and his perceptions into the machinations of the American political system are unmatched; but even he, it seems, underestimated the difficulty of legislating beauty. The test case was the bill Mr. Johnson proposed to Congress in May to war against ugliness by extending federal controls over the proliferating billboards along the nation’s major highways, cleaning up or clearing out roadside junkyards, and requiring that certain proportions of the funds which the federal government hands out to the states to build highways be used to make the roads more pleasant to drive along and to construct new scenic roadways. Mr. Johnson’s proposals were in no sense the work of wild-eyed conservationists bent on chopping down every pillar and post twixt man and tree. In the spirit of consensus politics, they had been worked over in two years of negotiation between the billboard interests and the Department of Commerce, parent agency of the Bureau of Public Roads. Yet as the highway beautification bill moved through Congress, it was diluted in some parts and mangled in others; and not until there had been considerable bloodletting, and the full commitment of the powers of the White House, did a bill of only wan beauty finally reach the President’s desk. By that time there were many in and out of the Administration who were wondering whether the game had been worth the candle, and the organized beauty lovers whom the President had hoped to engage in his effort had long since abandoned him.

The bill that the President signed into law will impose certain controls over billboards along 265,000 of the some 3.5 million miles of U.S. roads. On the controlled roads, no billboards will be allowed within 660 feet of the right-of-way along the road, but signs will still be permitted on those parts of the road which run through “industrial and commercial” areas. The designation of such areas will be largely in the hands of state and local governments, the great majority of which have looked on billboards with a benign eye. Thus billboards will come down in some areas, but the areas of greatest billboard clutter are likely to remain so, and new areas could be designated industrial or commercial — and opened to billboards — in perpetuity. State decisions to designate exempt areas must be “in agreement with” the Secretary of Commerce; but Secretary John Connor has emphasized that in “few, if any, instances” would the department overrule the states.

Some advertisers will simply put up larger billboards just beyond the 660-foot boundary; some will set up more signs on the roads which are not covered by the new law. The Secretary of Commerce was authorized to issue regulations on “size, space and lighting” —in agreement with the states — for the exempt areas (but not signs on the premises of the places they are advertising); but Congress demanded that the regulations be “consistent with customary use.” No billboards at all will have to come down for five years at least, and probably for much longer if the issue becomes as entangled in the courts as is expected; at that point, the federal treasury will compensate not only the billboard owners for their trouble but also each and every farmer who has been renting out roadside plots for billboards that now must come down. Federal officials have estimated that all this will cost $180 million (three fourths provided by the federal government, one fourth by the states), but concede that they have no idea how many billboards will have to come down, what the courts will find to be “just compensation,” and what the ultimate cost will be.

Junkyards and automobile graveyards along these same 265,000 miles will have to be either screened off with fences and shrubbery or removed. (Officials are the first to admit that this is a temporary expedient, pending solution of the larger problem of how to dispose of all types of surplus scrap that is piling up.) As in the billboard section, the junkyards in “industrial and commercial” areas are excused from having to pretty up or pack off, and more junkyards may settle in these areas. The federal government and the states will pay the full cost of screening or moving the junkyards. Finally, the bill authorizes funds from the federal treasury (rather than allocating money already set aside for highways, as the President asked) to cover the cost of landscaping roadsides and building scenic turnouts and recreation areas. Congress permitted these funds to be used for the kind of landscaping the states were supposed to be doing already along the right-of-way.

THE highway beautification proposals were part of a wide-ranging program to improve the American environment outlined by the President early in the year in a special Message to Congress on Natural Beauty. Some of the proposals, like the ones to combat pollution of various sorts, had been around for years, and some were new. The remarkable feature of the President’s program was its “packaging.” Take difficult problems like water pollution and air pollution and billboards and junkyards and pesticides and cracker-box developments and mining scars and honky-tonk seashores and put them all together, and say that the issue is beauty, and who can come out for making our country uglier? In this case, at least, a rose by any other name would not have the same political clout. It also provided Mrs. Johnson with a program to which she could devote her considerable energy and brains, a program suitable for a woman’s interest and, presumably, less likely than some to embroil the First Lady in unseemly controversy.

To give the beautification program a proper launching, President Johnson in May sponsored a special White House conference. But the White House Conference on Natural Beauty was no bed of roses. “It was a kind of shambles,” said one participant. Many went away mad. There was widespread disappointment that the conference talked about how nice it would be to have posies by the roadside, and pretty buildings instead of ugly buildings, but avoided such harder questions as how to keep highway departments and the Bureau of Roads from paving their way through parks. The blame for this denouement was not laid on the President, but on the staff of Laurance Rockefeller, Mrs. Johnson’s trusted lieutenant in the battle for beauty and chairman of the conference. Mr. Rockefeller’s dedication to conservation remained unquestioned, but his staff, it was said, lacked the savvy to deal with politics of beauty.

The conference started out with no more eager participants than the representatives of the garden clubs and citizens’ roadside councils throughout the country who had for years been waging lonely battles against billboard interests and highway departments, and who now found that their cause was all the rage. They did not claim to have invented beauty, but they did feel that they had earned a leadership role. This Mr. Rockefeller’s staff seems not to have understood. Furthermore, when the panel on roadside beauty convened, the roadside beauty people were appalled to find the enemy in their midst — Phillip Tocker, chairman of the Outdoor Advertising Association. Mr. Tocker’s home is in Waco, Texas, which, he reportedly likes to point out, is “not far from the Pedernales River.”

“I tried to tell them this was the camel’s nose in the tent,” says Mrs. Cyril Fox, the able and experienced chairman of the Pennsylvania Roadside Council, “but they said they had Tocker there to smoke him out.” Mrs. Fox and her colleagues thought otherwise. As the conference opened, Tocker happily told his fellow panel members that he had “an agreeable surprise” for them — that the Outdoor Advertising Association pledged its “enthusiastic and aggressive support of legislation ... in furtherance of President Johnson’s beautification program” — as long as industrial and commercial areas were exempt from billboard controls. This, thought Mrs. Fox and her colleagues, was where they had come in forty years ago.

Next, the roadside beauty panelists received a draft proposal of their report, drawn up in advance of the conference by the staff (a standard procedure for the brief conferences), and found that it proposed just the exemptions Mr. Tocker had suggested. Their hastily revised report stated that the majority of the panelists felt that no off-premise advertising should be permitted anywhere along the interstate or primary road system. Later that afternoon, when all the conferees were gathered in the East Room to winess the final presentation of the panels’ reports to the President, Mrs. Fox and her colleagues were appalled to hear the original staff report, not their own hard-line one, being read to the President. Whether an honest mistake or hanky-panky was involved they never knew. But the last straw came when in his immediate speech of reply Mr. Johnson announced that his highway beauty bill had already been drawn up and would be sent to Congress the following day — a bill to eliminate billboards from interstate and primary highways “except in those areas of commercial and industrial use.” (Emphasis added.) Concluding that the fix was in, the roadside beauty lovers shrugged their shoulders, put on their hats, and went home. From that time on they were unable to muster enthusiasm for the President’s bill.

Mr. Johnson’s advisers had been persuaded that only a bill containing these exemptions could get through Congress, and they therefore accepted Tocker’s reservations. However, the evidence is that in exchange for the exemptions, the Administration expected far more cooperation, or less opposition, from major outdoor advertising companies than it ultimately got.

“I could have told them those boys are not to be trusted,” says Mrs. Fox. For she at least was aware of the fact that for over a year the billboard industry was reportedly raising a $60 million war chest to fight federal billboard legislation. The Outdoor Advertising Association had been urging its members to get themselves on local planning and zoning boards, and their wives to infiltrate garden clubs. It instructed them to offer free billboard space for good causes (Easter Seals, et al) “to spotlight the public-spirited cooperation of your medium.” And it is widely acknowledged that the billboard companies are in a position to offer political candidates — local and national — not only campaign funds but election-time billboard space, free or at a discount. “Let’s face it,” one congressman remarked; “it is a rare congressman who is not pressed for campaign contributions, and the billboard people can help you, or hurt you, at a critical time.” As for the effect of the exemptions in the face of such pressures, in its comments on the President’s bill the American Society of Planning Officials’ newsletter said, “We foresee the makings of a lively market in billboard sites.”

In previous years Congress had enacted laws giving the states a small bonus if they instituted billboard controls along the interstate system, which was, and still is, being constructed with 90 percent of the funds coming from the federal government. President Johnson proposed extending billboard controls to the entire interstate system, plus the system of older primary roads which connect the major cities (for whose construction the government contributes 50 percent). Instead of getting a bonus, the state would lose its federal highway funds if it failed to institute controls. Then the President offered the exemptions that outraged the beauty groups — exemptions for areas zoned industrial or commercial or “used predominantly for industrial or commercial purposes,” with the proviso that the latter were to be “determined in accordance with national standards to be established by the Secretary.” Otherwise, there would be nothing to prevent local officials from issuing wholesale exemptions.

Whereas the President’s bill had already surrendered too much as far as the roadside councils and garden clubs were concerned, the billboard interests wanted to keep the Secretary of Commerce out of the decisions on what areas would be exempt, and to win compensation for all affected billboard owners. The Administration had already compromised on the compensation issue by promising some compensation in states which said they could not use their police powers to get rid of offending billboards. Because the President’s bill was to bring under control the 225,000-mile system of primary roads, which had formerly been exempt and were littered with hitherto legitimate billboards, the billboard industry argued that compensation was critical (even if given five more years’ use of the billboards). The roadside councils, on the other hand, had battled for and won court decisions holding that states had a right to use police powers to remove signs, and that landowners had no inherent right to sell advertising on their property. To them, any federal concession that compensation was in order was a dangerous step backward. “Highway robbery,” they called it.

THE billboard section was the most controversial of the President’s proposals. However, his requests that some junkyards be decorated or moved, that states use 3 percent of their federal road funds to landscape highways, and that they divert one third of the federal funds that would ordinarily be used to build secondary roads for the building of special scenic roads instead all came under heavy fire from the hefty road-building lobbies. In the end these proposals looked as if they had been hit by a truck. Indeed, they were. For the President proposed that the money to pay for beautifying federally aided roads come from the same pot (the Highway Trust Fund) as the money to build them. But to take the money from the trust fund would mean either that fewer roads would be built, and this the construction industry and state highway associations would not tolerate, or that the pot would have to be replenished by raising the “user taxes” — on gasoline, tires, and trucks — that make up the fund. At the same time, it had become clear that construction of the interstate highway system would miss its 1972 deadline by at least two or three years and that it was running up a whopping $3 billion deficit of its own in the trust fund. The trucking industry, which bears the brunt of the road taxes, is well represented in Washington by the American Trucking Association, widely known for its generosity with campaign contributions. The truckers are crazy about federal road-building programs; they just don’t want to be specially charged for them. Congress is never enthusiastic about raising user taxes. Therefore the lawmakers were quick to declare the trust fund off limits for the President’s beauty program. If the people were crying out for prettier highways, let them pay for them. This meant that the President would be obliged to ask Congress to appropriate funds for the beauty program each year. “All the President got was a hunting license for the money to do the job,” said one distressed conservationist.

MEANWHILE, county officials and highway contractors rose up as one in wrath at the President’s proposal to divert money from building regular secondary roads — usually referred to as “farm-tomarket” roads — to the building of scenic highways. The decisions on where to build secondary roads and to whom to award the contracts are made by county commissioners and they jealously guard this valuable authority. To them the President’s proposal smacked of frightening federal intrusion into the decisions on how to allocate federal funds. For congressmen, county political organizations can be of great help back home in the districts, so when the National Association of Counties and its members start shouting, they are heard in Washington. The provision for scenic highways was, in effect, dead on arrival in Congress.

Those who stand for asphalt over beauty or for “sacred property rights,” which the billboard interests proclaim, were fortunate in the congressional committees who were to review their case. The Roads subcommittees of the Senate and House Public Works committees are “mostly a pick-and-shovel crowd,” said a qualified observer of the House committee. “Most of these men would pave the whole United States if you let them,” said a close observer of the Senate group.

The committees greeted the President’s highway beautification bill with what could best be described as a yawn, but they did call hearings. During the hearings everyone was for beauty, and few witnesses failed to express their “support for the objectives of the President’s program.” It was just that the American Road Builders Association (contractors, suppliers, engineers) thought that the whole thing needed more study; the American Association of Highway Officials’ spokesman felt that “the lives of people would be saved by speeding up the present [construction] program, which I think is more important than trying to do much about beautification at the present time”; the Associated General Contractors (“all Americans first, contractors second”) worried that if the money came from the trust fund, “the end result will be fewer miles of needed highways”; the American Petroleum Institute was concerned that the motorist would lose his “freedom of choice” — his right “to informational signs so that he can select the products and services of his own choosing.” Mr. Tocker felt that if the Secretary of Commerce had nothing whatever to say about exempted areas, it would “minimize administrative problems and . . . provide reasonable flexibility.”

Spokesmen of the Holiday Inns of America, Inc., amused the Senate group by showing how it could get around the regulations by building bigger billboards beyond the 660-foot boundary, or might even consider sending a helicopter down the highway at rush hour with a streamer saying “Follow me.” A man from the Ohio Valley Advertising Corporation brought slides to show the Senate committee “how artistic poster design and wellmaintained standard panels can create warmth and color in an otherwise drab commercial area.” Sensitive junkyard men pointed out the usefulness to society of their salvaging operations (“we stand with our heads high”). Hotel owners, motel owners, drugstore owners paraded before the committees to testify that the bill would put them out of business. And all this had its effect. “When hundreds of little businessmen say that they are going to be hurt, the Democrats listen,” said someone who sat through the hearings.

The committees might have let the whole matter drop for this year, but suddenly, in late August, the word came from the White House that the highway beauty bill was one of the ones the President wanted this year, that he had to have this one, it was reported, “for Lady Bird.”

Under the White House pressure, the Senate subcommittee rushed the bill to the Senate within days. But the lawmakers had overestimated how much watering-down the Administration would tolerate. Just before the bill came to the Senate floor, Administration aides drew up a series of amendments, and Jennings Randolph (Democrat, West Virginia), subcommittee chairman, found himself in the embarrassing position of asking the Senate to make changes in his committee’s work. White House aides roamed the corridors, urging amendments and seeking votes. High officials, including Mrs. Johnson, got on the telephone.

After considerable huffing and putting, the Senate narrowly adopted what the Administration felt to be the critical amendment, one which stated that areas which were not zoned commercial and industrial could be exempted from billboard controls only “in agreement with” the Secretary of Commerce.

Other White House floor amendments further weakened the bill in an effort to keep it alive, and then an unenthusiastic House Public Works Committee was persuaded by the Administration to report out a bill substantially the same as the Senate-approved measure. But the Administration tactic of bleeding the bill in the Senate did not, as some had hoped, make the House any more sympathetic to the enfeebled patient. Now the opposition had gathered its greatest strength and momentum, and proponents of the measure were hard to find. Most garden clubs and beautification councils, upset at the further concessions that had been made and caught unprepared for the lastminute push for a bill this year, would have nothing to do with it. Administration pleas for help were turned down. “Why should I help them; it’s a lousy bill,” said one longtime billboard battler. How much help these groups could have actually provided is subject to dispute. They lacked the funds, the expert-staffed Washington offices, and in large part, the political sophistication of the opposition. But their value lay in what one congressional aide calls their “wonderfully pesty quality.” “Congressmen are afraid of swarms of ladies in flowery hats descending on them,” he said. “The ladies were on their necks in earlier billboard fights, and it made a real difference.”

There was no such disarray among the professionals on the other side. Moreover, congressmen were in their restive end-of-session mood; they wanted to go home.

In the final days before the House vote, the Administration went all out to turn the tide. A White-House-prepared memorandum explaining exactly what was in the bill convinced many congressmen that they were being fed false information by the opposition. There was a strong effort to drum up supporting telegrams from state officials. On the day of the vote, not only were several White House aides dispatched to the Hill, but also representatives of just about any Cabinet department with chips left to cash against the adjourning congressmen. But as responsible as anything for the fact that the bill survived the House without substantial gutting was that the House deliberations turned from a substantive fight into a partisan one, and in this case the outnumbered Republicans didn’t have a chance. The bill was brought up on a Thursday afternoon, with a presumption that the amending and voting would take place on Friday. But when the Democratic leadership found that it would suffer from substantial absences on Friday, a day on which the House rarely meets, they decided to push on for a final vote that night. This despite the fact that that evening members were all set to attend a Chinese Embassy reception for Madame Chiang Kai-shek and a White House “Salute to Congress,” and wives in party finery were fuming in the galleries. Republicans out to kill or weaken the bill made the mistake of reacting with delaying tactics, cries of “rubber stamp,” charges that the Democrats were afraid to go to the White House without this gift to Lady Bird. They offered facetious amendments— install Lady Bird instead of the Commerce Secretary in charge of the law, one proposed — and they impugned the motives of Democratic leaders. If they had tried, the GOP could not have succeeded better in getting the collective Democratic back up, and thus winning new support for the bill. Only two more weakening amendments were accepted, and then the bill passed easily. A few days later the Senate approved the House-amended measure and sent it to the President for his signature.

In sum, the story of the highway beautification bill could well be subtitled “a failure in consensus politics.” There can be no consensus when the other guys don’t believe in consensus. For one side the legislation threatened material losses, and knowing what it did not want, this side was united, imaginative, and untiring. For the other side, it represented only a partial improvement in the environment, and potential support even of the half loaf was undercut by dissension, confusion, and disinterest. The result was that President Johnson, his wife, and his aides had to mount a huge campaign to get Congress to remove a few billboards, screen a few junkyards, and put some money aside for a bit of natural beauty along the highways.

Even under the watered-down bill some will suffer losses and will need government help in readjusting, but forced readjustments are an inevitable part of improvement. “The highway beauty bill is the acid test,” said one congressman who was for it. “Do we want to improve our environment or let it keep getting more garish and sordid?”

That is a good question.