Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - Odin Langen
Access to this interview is subject to the deed of gift of December 14, 1993.
Interview with Rep. Odin Langen (R-MN)
"That's good business." "They do real well." "They do a real good job." Pleasant, down-to-earth, earnest, reasonable man, not a crusader or an ideologue of any sort.
"We're a different breed of cat--we members of the Appropriations Committee. We're different from the members of all other committees. It just grows on you. . . . When I went to the Minnesota State Legislature, I was as green as anything. I went on the Appropriations Committee. There were thirty of them and I thought to myself, 'where in the world did they find twenty-nine penny pinching individuals like this. They are agin everything.' But by the end of my first year I understood why they were that way . . . we sit here day after day looking at requests for money--all of them with merit. But you know that you can't appropriate the money for everything you want . . . . (why the very first day I was in Congress there were bills introduced that would cost a hundred and eighteen billion dollars if you passed them all. And they all would come to the Appropriations Committee.) How can you tell the projects which have merit from those that don't? You have to pick them apart. And so you do--you ask them questions about the most meritorious and authentic sounding proposals to see if they can justify them to you. When you find one that they can't justify you weed it out that way. They say that we're suspicious. We're not suspicious; we just want to be sure they need all the money they ask for. Some of them come over here with padded budgets. We've got to find these out, but we've got to be careful not to cut the man who has his program well figured out. But you give the man with the good program just as hard a going over as the man with a program that may not be quite so well in hand. You have to let a lot of them know that you are watching them even though you leave the program alone. . . . You just learn these things after you've been there. There are some standard questions. How many people do you want? What do you want them for? How many stenographers do you want, or desks, or wastebaskets? That fellow better be able to snap those things right off or he'll be in trouble. If he knows them you may be satisfied with his program and move on. But if he hesitates the least little bit, you keep going. If he can't pass that first test you know he doesn't know what he's talking about. He hasn't figured it closely enough. And you keep pushing him to justify it. If he can't, you tell him to come back tomorrow. . . . We're different. You listen to the conversation among the members of the Committee, when they are visiting among themselves, and they'll be talking about a program or something and every one of them will want to know 'how much did it cost?' That's automatic with them. They're money conscious and they talk about everything in terms of dollars and cents. . . . This is a personal problem I've had. I like to be thorough. And sometimes I say to myself afterwards, we didn't go far enough in that item. I know we could have cut more out if we had. You can't know everything. But you keep asking questions just to let them know someone is watching them. You've got to give them the idea--the manager of any shop would do that or the whole thing will go to pot . . . sometimes we have second thoughts the other way. We think that maybe we're a little too hard." Very good on the idea of tracer elements, and very good on the idea that you've got to "watch them." "I know we could weed billions of dollars out of that budget and never hurt a thing." But he worries because he doesn't have the information and the time.
Other members' attitudes: "They are very very polite. They've all got projects in over here, and they know what we can do to them. But I will say this. They are very considerate. If we have to cut out some pet project they are very understanding. They'll go out on the floor and make a fuss, but I'm surprised at how good they are about it. And we try to be accommodating with them. If some man comes before the Committee and makes a good presentation and we have to deny it, we may write him a letter and say that he made a good presentation but that we were unable to grant the request this year. This makes him feel better and clears him with the home folks. That's just good business. I do that every chance I get."
He noted that "there's much less political maneuvering by the Chairman on Appropriations than on other committees." He pointed out that on other committees they will report out a bill, send it along or what not, knowing it will pass or will get stopped somewhere. "Everyone know's what's going on. They know the bill won't pass. But appropriations bills don't get stuck in the Rules Committee. If something is in an appropriations bill, that's it--it's in there. You can't have all that political maneuvering." One idea here is the lack of partisanship is accompanied by a sense of responsibility.
Lack of partisanship: "Less than any other committee in the House." This is because of the difference in subject matter. "We consider things in dollars and cents. That's what we talk about. The Appropriations Committee can't legislate. We don't get into policy the way other committees do. We'd like to--and we can get in the report and all that--but not in the bill. So there isn't as much room for partisan controversy as there is on the other committees. We are always talking about dollars and cents."
Regarding Appropriations Committee Chairman Clarence Cannon (D-MO) in the subcommittee: "He's very faithful and attends every subcommittee markup. He doesn't come in there to dictate. He doesn't make recommendations or suggest figures or anything like that. He may say, 'our experience with this item has been this and so' or something like that. But he just wants to be acquainted with the considerations that went into our decisions."
He speaks of the subcommittee as the heart of the process--"One of the considerations will be, 'we can sustain this item in the full committee.' And if we can't, we'll throw it out. We know that certain members are against something or enthusiastic about it, and we take that into account in making our decisions in the subcommittee."
He sees the lack of time in the full Committee as a weakness of the process--he emphasized it more than anything else in terms of criticism. "The subcommittee report is only made available just before the Committee meeting and only then to the subcommittee members. You can get one, but you have to take the initiative. If I want one, I have to go to one of the members of the subcommittee and ask him for a copy. If I don't take an interest, I won't have the background in the full Committee. And there's a reason for that. They want to keep the Committee report from the press, really. If they got a hold of it, pressure would build up just like that before the Committee met, and we'd have a harder job. It would start controversy, and we'd have a lot more partisanship than we do. That's a real good reason, and I agree with it. But I would like to see a little more consideration by the full Committee. There isn't any problem with the rules. But it's gotten to be tradition. The subcommittee's report, and everyone says it's going to pass anyway so why get excited about it. I don't say every item should be considered all over again--oh heavens no--we'd never get anything done. But we shouldn't go through it quite as we do now."
I mentioned the pride of the subcommittee chairmen and agreed. "They take their presentation before the full Committee very seriously, and they work very hard at it. That's one reason why they want to work things out in subcommittee. That's the place to iron out our differences, and that's why they always consider what will happen in the full Committee. They don't want to flub there. If it looks like they can't justify something to the full Committee, they'll be in for a rough morning or a rough afternoon. They don't want that."
The subcommittee chairman wants everybody to be present at Committee meetings and consideration is given to others. It isn't like other committees where rump meetings or quickie meetings are held. He sees no very great apprenticeship. He stresses that people don't even sit by seniority in full Committee meeting. In subcommittee meeting if you want to ask a question you can, the senior man wants you to ask questions. He didn't see too much difference between his two subcommittees in terms of their general operation. But he did talk about "a different set of values" on deficiencies. Controversy arises with respect to a new program, and how much they will need to finish out the part of a year. "That's where you get into hassles," he says, "you can throw away a lot of money there."
With respect to his attempt to get on, he was a self-starter. He was on the Minnesota Appropriations Committee. "So it's not new to me." His major attraction seemed to be the idea of scope (and it is interesting that he was critical of the shortness of time in full Committee)." "You get a better acquaintance with the whole range of government here than any other committee. Every program needs money, and if it doesn't, then it isn't worth bothering about." He said that they split up into subcommittees but that still you've got an overview when you sat on the full Committee.
"I've always liked figures first, and I've always been interested in economics secondly."
A real self-starter: "It's been my objective from the first moment I came here. I declared my preference for it from the start, and I've been watching it as long as I've been here."
There was no Minnesota vacancy in the early days. Then Republican H. Carl Andersen was defeated, and Fred Marshall, the Democrat, resigned. It was natural, and no other Minnesota Republican wanted it. He got the backing of the delegation and of the Committee on Committees (he didn't mention Appropriations Committee ranking minority member John Taber [R-NY], specifically, and I didn't ask). He arranged to go on as soon as H. Carl was defeated. No loss to H. Carl and he agreed (didn't sound like he suggested it). He smiled when I mentioned the pro-H. Carl speech--said it was routine, et cetera.
He spoke of the benefits of the arrangement. "There are some real advantages to it. I gained two years seniority because of it. And there's nothing wrong with that. The vacancy was there, and it was obvious. If I lost the election, nothing would be lost. That's just good business."
Regarding his subcommittee assignments, he wanted the Agriculture Committee. But "that's where the trouble came. That's where the mechanism failed." The subcommittee was "a natural place since H. Carl had been on the subcommittee." Neal Smith of Iowa wanted Agriculture too, on the Democratic side--there were two vacancies. Cannon cut them both back in order (he says) to cut back the size of the subcommittees, because with people spread around on the subcommittees, attendance was poor at meetings and time was too cut up. He said that he could understand that all right, but he had not been maneuvering at all for other subcommittees. He thought he was safe on Agriculture, and he found out too late. So he got Deficiencies and Legislative. He thought that was better than most new members get. Then, of course, Deficiencies was abolished.
Why was Deficiencies abolished? He says reasons for and against it (which was typical of everything he said--he can see the for and against of everything--a very reasonable man). In the first place, the supplemental was growing in size. In the second place, the Clarence Cannon-Albert Thomas split goes way back. Yet he sees great problems when all are split up. One is a parliamentary problem. It is easier to get a deficiency bill through the House and the Senate than all the regular bills. There has to be some bringing in together. Yet if they consider bills in the regular subcommittees and then make them into one bill and send them to the floor, who will watch after them? He said this thing is "not resolved yet."
He explained how Thomas accommodated other subcommittees. The regular subcommittee chairman was allowed to sit in on the hearings of supplemental committee. He was also allowed to sit in on the markup. Some of them came to markup and some did not. If they didn't they sent letters to the Committee to make their wishes known. They were, therefore, taken into account and though they objected to the supplemental committee (as either too lenient or too hard, as the case may have been) he said it was no more than normal, and that pressure did not come from the subcommittee chairman.
He spoke of the idea of reserving and holding lines, et cetera, as a practice on the Committee and as real good business. He cited the scarcity of minority reports--the Committee sticking together, et cetera, and anticipating at each stage what was likely to happen at the next.
He mentioned the staff as soon as I mentioned markup: "That's where the staff will have to have done its job." He brought out the justification books and explained how they went through it point by point--"a long tedious job." "If you've got anything to say that's the time to say it."
He cited low partisanship and said that the executive session was a major contributing factor to the lack of partisanship. He said that things get a little more political when you are in public.