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Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - Ben F. Jensen


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Interview with Rep. Ben F. Jensen (R-IA)
May 28, 1959

Key word--a sense of responsibility--this came through very strongly, and probably for the first time, with him--the word responsibility was repeated again and again.


The first thing he said--"I'm one of the more conservative members of this committee." Later he said, "The longer you stay on the committee the more conservative you get. I came here as a progressive till I saw how things were done down here. I even had to pull harder on the conservative side than my heart dictated to keep these liberals from pulling us over the brink"--"The older fellows on the committee are more conservative than the younger fellows."


"This year we lost eight men, four quit, and four were defeated. We took the list of Republicans, John Taber [R-NY, the ranking minority member of Appropriations] and I, and we picked eight young, energetic, fighting conservatives." Why young? "So they will stay on the committee a long time. On this committee it takes a long time" (to learn the ropes)--"They ridicule the seniority rule. God have pity if we didn't. It's like anything else, this business, your business, or anything, there's no substitute for experience. I'd hate to get in a plane and have the pilot tell me that this was his solo flight."


Regarding the eight new men: "And they have to be hard working. This committee is no place for a man who doesn't want to work. It's a way of life--it's not just a job, it's a way of life."


"The subcommittee chairmen are more conservative than the rank and file." Why? "Because they feel their responsibility--responsibility is what the older men feel, or I should say, the older members feel. At least Jensen uses this notion more than anyone else."


"Subcommittee chairmen have the respect of their members; they are honest, courteous, tactful." "You can't beat a popular chairman on an amendment"--and he cites Albert Thomas (D-TX) on the Independent Agencies Subcommittee. Occasionally, an unpopular chairman will have an amendment carried against him--and usually it is when a member of the subcommittee proposes it."


The full committee respects the subcommittee, and therefore doesn't change its recommendations--unless a member of the subcommittee makes an amendment at markup time, then it might be different--respect is another key word for him, and the relationships within the committee rest heavily on respect--the older members contribute their sense of responsibility--the younger members contribute respect.


Regarding the subcommittee chairmen: he stressed "being fair, giving everyone a chance to ask questions"--"Occasionally, one comes along that is too cocky, then one of the members of the committee cuts him down to size and trims his whiskers a little."


He speaks feelingly and proudly of the Jensen rider--he says it saved ten billion dollars--a great accomplishment--"A leading Democrat came to me in 1951 and said they would have four million people on the payroll by election day." He set out to stop it--"Every year when we organize Congress, I get up on the floor and say that unless the subcommittees hold the line on personnel, I'll apply the Jensen rider. It has worked pretty well"--he mentioned the case of the hard fuel administrator in World War II--he had eighty-six men doing a good job--he comes before the committee and wants fifty more--Mr. Jensen said, "Well, you're not going to get em, you can put that down in your red book. . . . You've been doing a good job with what you've got. We've had no complaints. We don't want to do anything to spoil your record. If you get more you'll start to plague with each other. . . . You're a good public servant, keep it up."


"A bureau that is overstaffed will get cut worse than any others." This is his pet peeve, and he thinks "you can tell" these things.


Regarding the leadership of the bureau: he made a considerable point of this--"Would your wife buy groceries from a man she didn't like, even if she could save a little money? No. You might ask her why didn't she trade at Safeway instead of down at the corner, and she'd say, 'I don't like those people. I got some bad groceries once.' Well, it's just the same with us. Some administrators come over here and lie to us. We cut them, just to show em they can't do that"--other administrators come, answer all the questions and say, if they don't know the answer, "I don't know, but I'll get it for you, tomorrow."


Regarding the Budget Bureau: "I don't mind saying to you, I don't have any damn use for the Bureau of the Budget. . . . I'd vote today to abolish the Bureau of the Budget"--he thinks that it has lessened the responsibility of both the departmental officers who pass the buck and the representatives who say, "I supported the budget, and hide behind it that way"--there's a difference between the people in the field in the departments and the Budget Bureau. Regarding the people in the field: "They don't sit around the table at a mock hearing, they know what they're talking about, but these people down there (Budget Bureau) red pencil things out and approve things they don't know any more about than a hog does about war"--he became "disgusted" with the Bureau of the Budget--in the case of the Oregon and California Lands--the reclamation people wanted fire fighting equipment and gave it priority one--the Budget Bureau disallowed it--they moved the priority one down to priority four, and pushed something else up to priority one--"We gave them a good big cut--23 per cent. I didn't even look at the budget. I was so disgusted I threw it in the drawer and told my clerk I didn't want to see it again."


Later, he said, "Sometimes we probably hurt agencies because an administrator lies to us."


"I've been on the Committee seventeen years. No subcommittee of which I have been a member has ever reported out a bill without a cut in the budget. I'm proud on that record."


"I'm always getting up to propose amendments, 2 per cent here, 7 per cent here, 10 per cent there--five million, ten million, one million--it doesn't look like much, but it all adds up. Sometimes I'm amazed at how much we have accomplished."


Regarding the Senate: "There's an unwritten rule over there that when a senator from a respective state wants something put in a bill over and above the House, there are no questions asked"--the House is more conservative--"They don't go into the bill like we do--they know we go into the guts of the request."


Regarding a conference committee: "We take the bill, item by item, and usually we find some meeting of the minds--or we'd never get anything done"--"If the Senate is too stubborn sometimes we just get up and leave. The chairman gets up, and we follow him out. Oh, I've walked out of many conference committees in my seventeen years--old John Taber and I, and we tell them we won't come back till they are ready to be reasonable. They'll call up the next day and say they are ready for another session, and we'll say, well, we aren't. We don't think you've had enough time to think it over"--if the Senate is too stubborn and unreasonable, then the House conferees threaten to take it back to the House--if the House sustains them, "that's it, the Senate's got to yield." Why? Because there's money in it for them--"it gets to be a kind of a game." "Many times I stand up and talk and pound the table and try to make them take notice or get mad. Once in a while, I get under their skin a little, and they see things better"--"it's just like all things between men."


"The Senate always ups appropriations."


Regarding the liberals and the conservatives on the committee: "We're pretty well balanced."


Regarding the work of hearings: "It's mentally wearying to sit in hearings day after day, month after month."


During his blast against the Budget Bureau, he engaged in his bayonet practice analogy--very vivid--the Budget Bureau permits defense expenditures--defense expenditures equal war because when you prepare for war you fight--"When a horse learns to run, he wants to run"--his experience with bayonet practice. Pretty soon he wanted to try it.