Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - George H. Mahon - 1959
Access to this interview is subject to the deed of gift of December 14, 1993.
Interview with Rep. George H. Mahon (D-TX)
June 8, 1959
General remarks: Very friendly--talked very rapidly and in the presence of two staff members--not the most satisfactory interview.
When he came here he was on five minor committees--I "realized I wasn't doing much to shape the destinies of the nation"--was "disgusted"--In the Texas delegation, everything on committee assignments is done on the basis of seniority--and Appropriations is recognized to be one of the most important committees--When a vacancy came up that Texas could get, he asked for it and got it--a man who had been on the Appropriations Committee (Mc-something, from Texas) was defeated--and Mahon went on--He says he didn't have any illusions about what he could do, but he wanted "an inner feeling of satisfaction--"You have to live with yourself"--and he relates this feeling to working hard--He wasn't doing any work on other committees--"They'd introduce me back home as 'that great congressman,' but I wasn't doing anything."
Regarding choosing his subcommittee personnel: "I had as much to do with it as you did. He [Appropriations Committee Chairman Clarence Cannon, D-MO] did it without consulting me at all. He put some new ones on last year and the first I knew about it was when I was introduced to them in the subcommittee hearing. Mr. Cannon works in unusual ways."
Regarding learning the ropes: "When men first come on the committee, they look every bit as wise as the older members. But they don't know what the score is, and they don't have enough information to ask intelligent questions." After a while, they learn.
Do people get more conservative? "Maybe so, maybe so, I think people just become more conservative the older they get, period--not just on the Appropriations Committee."
He says he knows pretty much how the members of his subcommittee feel on controversial items by the time markup comes. "But you can never tell how strongly they feel about some of these things, and how they will vote."
He mentioned the tradition against minority reports--"they fight it out in committee, and if they lose they don't usually cry-baby about it on the floor." There is very little partisanship in the subcommittee. When I asked him if the Appropriations Committee was tightly knit, he immediately started talking about the subcommittee--he thinks of the subcommittee as the key unit.
Subcommittee members may take a fight to the floor--if so, that's how they vent their disagreement and not via minority reports.
He says that sometimes committee members will get their information from extra-committee sources.
Regarding Cannon: He stresses his great ability "to cross swords with any one in debate," his great talent on the floor as a source of power--but later he said the power to appoint subcommittees was more crucial.
Regarding bureau requests: "They don't ask for more money than they need to do what they want to do. They just want to do more than what we think is necessary. And we think they can do what is necessary with less than they do."
Do your constituents understand your job? "Not much. . . . Here's a myth I wish someone would explode. I go home and tell the editor of my hometown paper that the committee just cut the budget five billion. He says, 'Why, you know, George, that they all ask for one-third more than they need, so that's not anything.' Those budgets are pretty tight. You just can't pad a budget by one-third. You can cut out a program if you want, but not that kind of padding." He said the people like to have the feeling that their congressman is doing things for his country.
"The Budget Bureau is a whipping boy for people who can't get what they want. Really it's the President or the Secretary of Defense or Labor who have stopped it. But they yell, 'Budget Bureau, Budget Bureau' because they know it's unpopular. They say the people over there have never actually seen such and such, and that they don't know anything, et cetera. . . . But it's a balance wheel, and if the President didn't have this he'd have to create another one. It's either this or something else like it." He says that Daniel J. Flood (D-PA) and John J. Riley (D-SC) don't like the Budget Bureau.
Regarding communication with bureaus during the year: "No, I steer clear of them." (Hard to believe.)