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Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - Don Magnuson


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Interview with Rep. Don Magnuson (D-WA)
May 26, 1959

General remarks: his key work seemed to be constituency services.


Why on the Committee? "Sometimes I wonder. It's a man killer." He was on Merchant Marine and Fisheries: "very unsatisfactory. If we met once every three weeks we were lucky." Appropriations is a "powerful" committee--one of the "big three of the House"--"It's natural to want to be on a more powerful committee." He stressed the work on the committee--he's on three subcommittees--two subcommittees frequently meet at the same time.


Since two subcommittees frequently meet at the same time he finds he must, or at any rate he does, spend more time on the Interior Subcommittee and on the Public Works Subcommittee than on the State and Justice Subcommittee. He stresses that the first two subcommittees are more important to his district.


How did you get on the Committee? "It's a lobbying proposition really." He wrote a letter to every member of the Ways and Means Committee, and he saw "nearly all of them personally." It's safe to say that unless the speaker and the majority leader and the chairman of the committee support you, you don't get on. He had "the active support of [Majority Leader John] McCormack [D-MA] and the Speaker [Sam Rayburn, D-TX]." His "pitch" was that the top tier of western states didn't have representation on the committee on the Democratic side--that the West in general was underrepresented at that time.


Regarding learning the ropes: "Nobody tells you, you just go to subcommittee meetings and gradually assimilate the routine"--"the new members are always made to feel welcome, but you know that you have a lot of rope learning to do before you carry much weight."


"Every government bureau wants to get bigger." Every budget has fat in it. They ask for more than they need. The House committee becomes especially conscious of the need for economy--more so than the membership in general--because they are closest to it. This is an idea that was repeated again and again especially by men who had not been on the committee very long.


Regarding the subcommittee and its chairman: If there is a strong chairman, he "virtually fixes the appropriation" (Mr. John J. Rooney, D-NY)--50 per cent of the time Rooney is the only member of the State and Justice Subcommittee present at the hearings--he has the most information--he and the staff man work together--when the subcommittee meets for markup Rooney has fixed amounts that he and the clerk have agreed upon. "They put the propositions. The rest of us can object but very seldom." It is important to note the subcommittee chairman's view. "They want to feel they have the support of the committee." That is why they don't mind taking it upon themselves to draw up amounts. When Rooney finishes questioning in the hearings there isn't much left, so Magnuson doesn't spend much time in the State and Justice hearings--he goes to others--there's nothing for him to do. . . .


The full committee is likely to change only if some "strong member" pushes a point.


Regarding party politics: there is, he says, very little. In Public Works--"We keep an eye out for a fellow who needs something in his campaign. If he can bring back a little something and that will help him, we naturally go along."


Regarding the success of some bureaus: He started with the views of the subcommittee chairman and then went into the Rooney business. Regarding the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI): "I noticed this when I first went on the committee. We were going along in the markup session, regularly making cuts, till we came to the FBI, and no cut was made. I discovered it was sacrosanct." He spoke of the "deification" of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover--congressmen are "fearful" of him--good presentation by Hoover--Hoover looks very efficient in his manner of presentation. He has a large typed manuscript. He doesn't look as though he's reading, but he is--rapid fire style--He "snaps out pictures at us."


Regarding the subcommittees attitude toward the FBI: "Nobody ever says anything about it but you can feel it."


"The Bureau of Reclamation is up and down in appropriations because he says economies can be effected more easily in construction than in personnel.


He thinks the Bonneville Power Administration "does very well"--partly "because of my presence on the subcommittee."


He also mentioned the times and economy moods as a factor.


Regarding the United State Information Agency, he says: "A lot of these people are artists. Congress is used to dealing with executives and businessmen. These people are motion picture producers, writers and a lot of them are--well, they are creeps."


He says Mr. Clarence Cannon (D-MO), Chairman of Appropriations, has been "extra nice" to him, and one way of demonstrating this was putting him on several subcommittees. Mr. Cannon is partial to public power, and he put him on the Subcommittee on Interior "because he needed a little support."


Regarding his service on the Interior Subcommittee, he said, "It's a very strategic position for me as far as my constituents are concerned"--"I'm the only man on the Interior Subcommittee from the West, so I was constrained (sic) to become an expert on the Forest Service. I am recognized as such by the members of the subcommittee and by the Forest Service. It was largely through my efforts that two million dollars was added this year for forest roads and trails."


Why do bureau heads ask for more money than they need? "They've been through it before--they expect to be cut, and that's why they put in more than they need."


Regarding finding soft spots: "There's a lot of hit or miss in this. Many times we make mistakes for lack of information, but we have several backstops if we make any serious mistakes. There's the full committee, the House and the Senate." He talked about the advantage that the subcommittee chairman has in terms of the simple fact that he is in possession of all the information during the markup. There is at that time one available copy of the transcript, and the chairman and the staff man have it. The subcommittee members don't usually have a chance to see it--not usually. The hearings are not printed until the full committee markup--though yesterday the full Public Works Committee marked up the bill without having any transcripts of the hearings present.


He spoke feelingly about an amendment up on the floor that day--the prison for southern Illinois. He wanted to "duck" a teller or a standing vote "because I'm under great pressure from both sides. Mr. Cannon has put great pressure on me to vote against it. On the other hand, I have good friends on the other side--Tommy O'Brien [D-IL] and Ken Gray [D-IL]." Regarding subcommittee hearings, he said that they were "about the only source of information." At another point he said, "It gets pretty boring, you have the same bunch of guys coming over here telling you the same story, year after year".


Regarding his relations with Cannon again: He feels that he and Cannon get along very well on the basis of public power, and he spoke of "the chairman's particular interest in public power."