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Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - Charles S. Joelson


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Access to this interview is subject to the deed of gift of December 14, 1993.



Interview with Rep. Charles S. Joelson (D-NJ)
April 1964

Here is a man who sees subcommittee autonomy. The subcommittee is a prison for him, and he can't break out. The more he fights the more imprisoned he is.

"The full Committee is a big joke. You can't get the report of the subcommittee until you get there. So you file in, and the clerk hands you a copy of the report. The chairman starts right in and says, 'this item is one million dollars more than last year but one million dollars less than they asked for. All those in favor say aye -- nays? -- the item is passed.' In the meantime, you are riffling through this big report trying to find intelligent questions. Then the meeting is adjourned. You are just another body in there. . . . My attendance at full Committee meetings isn't all it should be. If you stay away from full Committee you are cutting off your nose to spite your face. On the other hand, if you go, you are just another body."

"I called the clerk a day before the full Committee meeting, and I asked him, 'Do you have the report?" He said he did. I said, 'I'm coming over, and I'd like to see a copy of the report.' The clerk said -- the clerk, mind you and I'm the member -- the clerk said, 'you can't see it, chairman's orders.'"

There is no Appropriations Committee. There are thirteen principalities -- secret principalities, each one jealously guarding its domain."

There is one meeting at the beginning of the Congress which is the place to get changes made. He pointed out that the first thing they do is adopt the rules of the previous Congress.

"The only way to change is to get ten or twelve young turks to join you. But I'm the only one who has said anything. The rest have kept quiet. There are four other new ones -- northern liberals supposedly. They are hoping that next year, when a subcommittee vacancy comes up, they will be rewarded for being good little boys. And they are probably smarter than I am. I have spoken up, and what has it gotten me -- nothing. I'm in the doghouse. And I'll probably stay there. I'll never get another subcommittee. It's not odious or noxious to me, but I just feel like another body." And he went on to say how [Adam Clayton] Powell [D-NY] gave him his head on Education and Labor and gave him a sense of participation. What he lacks on this Committee is that sense of participation.

On Education and Labor there was a healthy partisan division. But on this Committee there are no Democrats or Republicans. There's harmony. There's no two-party system on Appropriations. In full Committee, the chairman of the subcommittee gets up and then the ranking minority member of the subcommittee. And they saw what a good job the other has done. They scratch each other's back. There's never any dissent. Only once in two years has there been any difference (accelerated public works), and we had a vote. But there are no roll calls. I think it's got to do with trading on public works projects . . . and if you vote against the Committee on the floor you are breaking the old school tie. They treat you like a leper. You are supposed to vote with the Committee, and if you don't you're known as the kind who breaks the rules of the club. I've done it, and I've been told. They don't come right out and say it directly, but you know you are an outcast."

He said I could use this item. "I tried to file minority views on the foreign aid appropriations. I said that I had not been able to see the report before the full Committee meeting. I said that the money may be enough or it may not be enough. But that I didn't have the information and couldn't get it. I said I just was not a party to the Committee report. I handed it to the clerk. When the report was put out, my views were not there. The chairman had ordered it not printed. I didn't make an issue of it."

"They have got it pretty well sewed up."

Regarding Committee membership. "I didn't want it exactly. I was on Education and Labor and was happy where I was. It was creative and exciting work. But I was prevailed upon to take it -- prevailed upon isn't exactly the right word. I didn't have to have my arm twisted. New Jersey didn't have a person on either side of the aisle, and I thought it would be good for New Jersey. Peter Rodino [D-NJ], our whip, came to me and said that there was a vacancy on the Committee and New Jersey could have it, and did I want it. I said they should give it to the new man -- [Edward] Patten, a freshman. He said they wouldn't have a freshman on the Committee. So I said, yes. Around here it's considered an honor and a promotion to go on the Appropriations Committee. I didn't realize what it would be like. I feel like a glorified accountant. I don't have the right temperament for this kind of committee. But where can I go? I'll just lose my seniority all over again."

Regarding his subcommittee: "I've been told the sure way not to get a subcommittee is to ask Mr. [Clarence] Cannon [D-MO, chairman of the Appropriations Committee] for it. I went to him and told him the one subcommittee I did not want to get on -- agriculture. I had heard that I was slated for that slot. I didn't get it. I got this one. I never knew that this subcommittee existed." [During the 89th Congress, 1965-67, Joelson served on the State, Justice, and the Judiciary Subcommittee.]

He referred to his attempts to get a rule saying that reports had to be circulated forty-eight hours before the full Committee met -- the same story reported in the newspapers by Evans and Novak.

The Appropriations Committee is the only committee where you never hear two sides of the question. The witnesses always defend their appropriation. So you have to be the prosecutor and not the judge. It's an ex parte hearing. You have to look at them with a jaundiced eye. He is trying to protect his domain. It's just you and him. I'd like to hear some witnesses opposed to an appropriation sometime."

"I have a lot of respect for the chairman -- even though I do wish he would put a little more democracy in the Committee."

He mentioned the secrecy of sessions as a factor in Committee unity -- the press is kept out, etc.