Research Interview Notes of Richard F. Fenno, Jr. with Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1959-1965
Interview Notes Index
Access to this interview is subject to the deed of
gift of December 14, 1993.
Interview with Rep. Jamie L. Whitten (D-MS)
June 1, 1959
General remarks -- his key seemed to be the best practicable system -- What alternative would be better? -- an able, politically minded senior member.
Regarding Mr. Michel and Soil Conservation -- Michel opposed soil conservation because it didn't help his district -- "it's all right for a young fellow to go local for one year but you've got to be national about this. He had his run this year but you've got to be broader".
"I take the budget when it comes down here and see what I think ought to be -- within limits. Then I make out my case and when I ask questions I just don't go around for curiosity, I have a purpose like a lawyer or a prosecutor making out his case . . . (Then he reflects about the demands of others) but I try to be pliable".
"How can anybody tell whether you ought to have 63 million 470 or 62,500,470 for research? It isn't an exact science . . . and then I've got my subcommittee members, Fred Marshall of Minnesota and Bill Natcher of Kentucky -- that's corn and wheat and tobacco -- and Fred Santangelo of New York -- the school lunch program comes in there".
"Of course your favorites do better than some others and I don't mean personally. I mean the programs you believe in".
He has nothing to do with getting men on his committee, on the committee but on the subcommittee sometimes yes -- "sometimes I have been very influential in getting men on my subcommittee. I may go and tell the chairman what I want. That's because of my personal relationship with Mr. Cannon. I've been here long enough and worked with him -- Example, the Santangelo story -- he was put on agriculture -- "I went to Mr. Cannon and told him I didn't like it" -- I wanted someone more involved in agriculture -- Cannon said "the leadership wanted someone on there from the city to balance things up" -- "my fears were needless; he's a hell of a fine fellow and a good friend of mine. I didn't know him so well before but he's cooperated and gone along and everything's worked out fine." (in confidence).
Regarding Mr. Cannon: "you've got to locate power somewhere. If you didn't do this where would you put it? Now you say he has the power; what the Commitee gives, the Committee can take away" -- 2 or 3 years ago Mr. Cannon, for reasons of his own, tried to bust up one of the subcommittees. We didn't like that and we passed a resolution in the committee taking away his power to appoint subcommittees. Hell, I cast the deciding vote and I was sitting right in front of him, but we took away his power to appoint subcommittees. He was breaking up the whole committee. A couple of weeks later a few of the senior members got together and worked out a compromise. By that time he had seen a few things so we went to him and talked to him and worked it out and we gave the power back to him".
"Regarding Cannon -- He can be stubborn and do things wrong once in a while but not too often". The Committee keeps him in line ultimately and this point was made frequently especially by subcommittee chairmen, that the chairman did not have unlimited power.
Regarding Mr. Cannon and Mr. Taber: "the chairman and ranking minority member work closely together. That's especially true in the present case because they've been here so long. They understand each other" -- at another point he said "Mr. Cannon's 80 and Mr. Tabor's 79 so you get problems on that sometimes. Their minds are still active but sometimes they don't follow through".
How get on the Committee? "I was in the Mississippi Legislature. I knew I wasn't going to come here the first year and run the Congress" -- He was on the Ways and Means Committee in the Mississippi Legislature and when he came here he told people that he wanted Ways and Means eventually -- after being here 12 months people asked him "to run" for a place on Ways and Means and he decided to do it -- he thought it would help his career as a lawyer -- he didn't intend to stay in Congress very long -- "the leadership called and said that if I'd drop out of the campaign for Ways and Means they'd put me on Appropriations". He mentioned that he had had a conservative record -- he related this record to the lack of campaign promises made -- here again perhaps is the idea of flexibility.
The Appropriations Committee is one of the two most influential committees -- it is "influential in the Congress". People come to you -- on the legislative committee you study substantive changes in some areas. On Appropriations you study every phase, every year. He stressed that being on the Appropriations Committee, other members come to him as subcommittee chairman when they want things and this gives him access to other places where he wants things -- he protested that this was not log rolling -- he mentioned that he gets the right to be recognized on the floor in an appropriations debate whereas he would not otherwise have precedence over anyone else -- the idea is that Appropriations Committee members have preference on the floor when appropriations bills are under consideration.
Regarding the importance of staff -- the staff picks new men from the list of budget directors in the departments -- he thinks that he has gotten good subcommittee assignments because he gets along with the staff -- "when the chairman wants information on these things he's got to go somewhere. If he wants to make a committee more conservative where is he going to get the information? The staff members work with the whole committee and he naturally talks with them" -- he referred to Ross Pope as "my man" -- they work closely together. If he didn't have Pope "I'd be stuck" -- when his clerk is not available he has trouble -- he talked about how he objected to Pope's going with the Commerce Subcommittee if it meant that he could not devote most of his time to agriculture -- Referring to Pope making an investigation he said "I sent my man out there".
Regarding Conference Committee -- it's a case of pulling and hauling etc. -- "you've got a lot more weak men on the Senate side than you have in the House" -- Senators rely on publicity for success -- they may be appointed and not elected -- the House member meets his constituency face to face -- he knows his people -- Wbitten has a great feeling of community with his district "I was born and grew up in my district, my folks and I have the same background. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred we believe the same things on an issue if we study it. I study it and I tell them my study. He has no platforms and no campaign speeches. He had opposition only once but he spoke about how he went to Moscow and came back and made 50 or 60 speeches to tell people where he stood -- "I accept every invitation to speak at a civic club or any other organization I can".
On the Rural Electrification Administration -- they used to need lots of investigators at the outset of the program -- not necessary now -- they have a "mature program" -- they have more personnel than they need he thinks but it is hard to cut them down.
The Soil Conservation -- by law they are required to support districts -- so when districts are set up under state law you are committed -- the program needs to grow now.
The Forest Service -- he talked about the bark beetle episode -- the Denver Post supported a boost in bark beetle control -- "I cut it out," later it was put in because the committee investigator felt it necessary -- the Denver Post went on an economy drive -- he wrote back "everybody has a bark beetle project".
Regarding the subcommittee -- after the subcommittee talks it over -- "I don't try to get a binding agreement" -- Mr. Michel opposed him on soil conservation; "they got to him and got him to put up an amendment. That's all right, there was politics in there and we stopped it".
He talked about the other chairmen under whom he had served -- one man wanted his own way -- "We'd go out on the floor and have to beat down amendment after amendment. As far as I could see it was just part of the stubbornness of the chairman" --
He was very clear on his policymaking role -- we "veto or enlarge a program".
It is clear that he as subcommittee chairman is expected to have information and the other members are therefore saved time and effort.
On the seniority rule -- "people criticize the seniority rule. I can't conceive of any better system. When I came here people asked me to join a group opposing seniority rule. I knew from my experience in the Mississippi state legislature (that there was no other alternative) besides by the time I had seniority maybe I'd have to change my mind" -- he says he's known chairmen in their dotage -- when that's the case the No. 2 man, or No. 3 or No. 4 man on the committee "really runs it, he's the power there".
It seemed that he conceived of his role strongly in terms of holding things down. He spoke about his job as "press down", "hold the line", "keep the lid on", "sit on people" -- he noted that he was "pliable" but that he had to sit on people across the board.
The Appropriations Committee men or man doesn't get credit for what he does -- other men get credit for asking for things -- the Appropriations Committee has to cut it down and they have to explain why they held it down; "they have to talk about how they held it down even when they raised it some". Even though they support a thing they must talk in negative terms. That seemed to be his key point.
The fact that he never had campaign speeches or made promises or had a platform seemed significant to him in terms of his getting on the Appropriations Committee. He had a clean record he said, maybe he meant to stress the idea of flexibility.
He makes a great deal out of his experience as prosecuting attorney in investigation -- he admits that some men not trained in law do just as well as a lawyer -- but he seems to think that law is especially valuable.
He talked about the attempt to have his clerk, Ross Pope, put on the Commerce Subcommittee -- "I went to Mr. Cannon and said I didn't mind if he were No. 2 man on commerce," but I didn't want him to shortchange agriculture. He spoke of how he needed him -- "I'd be sunk" if I needed him on agricultural matters and he had to work on commerce -- "it would change my whole job he said -- indicating that he would have to do a lot more work of a detailed nature which he does not now do. He relies on Pope who has the experience -- and it takes time for a staff man to gain that experience.
"Politics, she's a son of a bitch!".