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Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - John W. McCormack


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



Interview with Rep. John W. McCormack (D-MA)
January 1961

"In the morning, I'll go in and sit down with two or three of the fellas having coffee. It's good for me as leader, because I can pick up information that will help me. I'll ask them what their problems are, whether there's anything exciting or difficult going on. Here and there I find out things--because they operate in secrecy. I'm against secrecy. I'm in favor of an informed public opinion, and in letting the people know. There's a lot of common sense and wisdom in the people. Oh, they'll take nose dives once in a while--I will myself--but over the long run, the people will be right if you let them know what's going on. . . . Well, thirty seconds before 10 o'clock, they'll say--[John E.] Fogarty [D-RI], [Michael J.] Kirwan [D-OH], and Eddie Boland [D-MA]--'I've got to go to committee,' or 'I'll be late,' and they gulp down their coffee and jump up and run off into their meetings. They're a dedicated committee, a powerful committee, and a tireless committee. They are the hardest workers in the Congress. They get no glamour, no fanfare, and nobody even knows what they are doing until it gets to the floor. They sit morning and afternoon and sometimes at night--plodding, plodding, plodding and, figuring. I could never do it. Appropriations is the last committee I would ever want to go on. I like to deal with broad policy questions which affect people or large segments of the population. I may do some figuring, but if I do it's incidental to some broad legislative question. But I couldn't sit there day after day and figure up dollars and cents, dollars and cents. With them it's a state of mind, a way of life. They have a missionary spirit on that Committee. I admire them for it; and I respect them. You walk over in the morning to the House just before 10 o'clock, and you'll see them all pounding through the tunnel on their way to subcommittee meetings. Down that long tunnel they come, hurrying along and afraid they are going to be late. They shouldn't be going so fast--some of them are too old--but they do it just the same. It's that dedication they have. It's dragging, dreary work in those small little rooms tucked away around here. But if you poke your nose in there, all the subcommittee members will be there--working in secrecy and working hard. They're like missionaries."


"The Committee likes to grasp for power (he kept cupping his fingers in a grasping motion all the time). They like to reach out and concentrate. They want this single budget. That would give two or three people all the power in conference. It's that tendency to concentrate. It's bad. . . . They're a tremendously powerful committee, but sometimes they try to go a little too far. Sometimes a man on the Committee will clip a member that he doesn't like. That's human nature--but they're a dedicated committee, a tireless committee, and I have a great respect for them."


Regarding backdoor financing: "What can you do when you have these broad programs like housing. You can't take a program like that to the Appropriations Committee, where they are planted and ready to cut you down. The Committee wants a review every year. You take the international bank. You can't operate that without continuity. I don't say you should have backdoor financing for everything--not at all. The Committee would like to have you think that's what's involved; but it's not."


Regarding resentment: He said that only came when they cut too much.


Regarding socialization as seen from the outside: "They have a missionary spirit. When young men go on there, you notice a change of mind. They begin to get that indoctrination. Maybe that's too strong, but you can see it. I remember once when a member asked me to help him with a project. I called in one of the fellas on the Appropriations subcommittee. Now, I've had a hand in putting most all of those members on the Committee--directly as leader or indirectly as a member of the Committee on Committees. A man from New England who gets on--it's not an accident. Well, anyway, I helped put this man on the Committee; and I asked him about the project. He said, 'I'll look into it.' I felt like saying, 'Why don't you tell me yes or no,' but I didn't. There was that drawing-away attitude, that veil of secrecy. I know these fellas want certain subcommittee assignments on the Committee. I know they have to behave that way sometimes. I understand; but I put this fellow on the Committee and he was acting very funny. So I asked him a second time about it; and he gave me the same story, 'I'll look into it.' Well, I said to him, 'Stop this. Tell me yes or no, yes or no! If it's no, tell me. If it's yes, tell me. But tell me, yes or no!' I said, 'I helped put you on this Committee, but I don't want your help on that account. I'm glad you're on there. But I want a straight answer--and I'm the leader.' If that had been John Fogarty, he would have said, 'Sure, John; all right, John.' You can work with men like that, and know where he stands. I want a man who'll give me his word on something and fight for it--on the inside where it counts, and not on the outside. When I give my word, I'll fight for something in executive session. I don't want any of this going through the motions. Well, he said yes he would, and he did. I had to put it to him hard. He's a nice fellow, and I like him. I'm glad he's on the Committee. But I did it to shock him--for his own good. I had to shock him for his own good. Some of them get that power and get in there in secret, and it takes a very differentiating mind to know how to act. They begin to see power as a personal attribute instead of a trust. And that's no good."


"They say the Senate is the most exclusive club in the world? Why, that's minor league compared with a subcommittee on Appropriations. Not the full Committee, but a subcommittee. What a member wants there he gets, and there's no partisanship whatsoever. You talk about the Senate being exclusive. It's a sideshow when you put it beside a subcommittee on Appropriations."


"They work in secrecy. I can't get any information. You can't find out anything until they get out to the floor. And it's hard to lick em at that stage. They're a closed corporation. When they stick together, you can't lick em on the floor."


"It all depends on the chairman you have to work with. (I assumed this was a reflection on Appropriations Chairman Clarence Cannon, D-MO.) If the chairman is the kind you can deal with, the leadership has no trouble. But fellows like [Rules Committee Chairman Howard W.] Smith [D-VA] and [Post Office and Civil Service Committee Chairman Tom] Murray [D-TN] are hard to deal with. We've got some good people like George Mahon [D-TX] on defense appropriations."


Regarding public works rolling the Committee: "Three years ago, the President sent down a public works budget and they cut it by about seventy-eight million dollars. But they cut more projects of Democrats than Republicans. Here was a Republican President sending down a budget for projects in Democratic districts and a Democratic controlled Congress cutting them! There were a few Republicans, but not many; most of the cuts were on Democrats. The money was in the budget, and the projects had been authorized, but the Committee refused to appropriate seventy-eight billion dollars. That was terrible, and the members were upset. They came in here and yack, yack, yack. I said to them, 'What's the matter with you? Are you afraid of the Appropriations Committee? You are elected members of Congress, aren't you? Whey don't you go out and round up some support. Get all these Democrats that have been hurt, and suck the Republicans in, too. There are some of them. Get yourselves a coalition. I'll be helping you.' So I went around and said to people, 'Isn't it terrible what the Committee is doing. Just think, a Republican President sends down a budget with money--not new money either--for projects that have already been authorized, and here the Democratic controlled Committee cuts it. If that were my district, I'd be humiliated. I don't know how I would explain it to my people.' We had a vote on it and I voted against the Committee. I marched right through the tellers, and voted against them. (He grinned.) The fellow who was handling the bill (Louis C. Rabaut, D-MI) was a nice fellow and a good friend of mine. I said to him, 'Don't get caught like that again.' And he said, 'I never will let Cannon get me into that position again--never.' That was a party matter. But even the Republicans joined us."


(He said this one was not for the book) regarding the prison fight: "A few years ago they wanted to build a new house of correction, and the Department of Justice had two sites for it--one in Missouri and one in Illinois. Cannon wanted it in Missouri, but the Department chose Illinois. Cannon sent word down not to include any estimates for it. That would give him time to work on it. He was using his power--sending down the word, don't you see. It was an injustice, and I don't like injustice. It so happened that the prison fell in the district of a first-term member--Kenneth Gray. He happened to be a Democrat, but I would have felt the same way if it had been a Republican. Cannon was using his power. He's an able man, a very able man. He works in secret down here, out of the limelight, and he has great power. Gray came to see me, and I said, 'Go get your Illinois delegation, Tommy O'Brien and the rest. I'll help you,' I told him. And I did. When it came to the floor, Gray offered a motion to put in two million. The subcommittee chairman (John J. Rooney, D-NY) who was handling the bill opposed it. Cannon wasn't on the floor at the time. I was going around saying, 'Isn't it terrible what they're doing to poor Ken Gray,' trying to stiffen up Tom O'Brien and the rest. We had a standing vote; and I voted against the Committee, right down there in front where everybody could see me. John Rooney, who was handling the bill, hardly spoke to me for two years and he still barely speaks. But I said to him, 'Next time get Cannon out there to do his own work. Don't get caught in that position again.'"


"Cannon wants to cut, cut, cut--unless Missouri's involved. He fights hard for Missouri, and I admire him for it. But he'll go out there on the floor and cry and cry, 'Support the Committee! We've got to cut!' But not on Missouri."


There are fewer party votes on Appropriations than on other areas, he said--he talked about some matters (defense) where there were big differences, but said these were not party matters.


How choose Appropriations Committee members?


1. "Industry--they have to want to work. They have to be serious minded and willing to work. We don't ask them whether they are spenders or not. That doesn't enter into it. It isn't an ideological matter. We don't care about his stand on policy. It's not like Ways & Means where if a man's opposed to reciprocal trade we can't afford to put him on."


2. Geography--"If there's a state or a section of small states that isn't represented on the Committee, we give it to him. It's good for the party and it's good for the country to spread it around. You don't want the membership concentrated in one area--that's not good."


3. "Of course, personality enters in. Like any gang of fellas on the corner, like any group. You have different personalities. Some members are more popular than others. They are all different. Some of the members are brilliant but they are lazy. Others are not so brilliant, but they develop what they have, and they work hard. Some men are eloquent speakers; but they don't have that 'it' to make a speech. Others don't speak so well, but they've got the courage to go down and say what they feel. It takes a lot of guts to get up off that chair for the first time and face the House. Other members are there for years and years, and no one even knows they are there. But we know they are there. We know they are doing their job in committee, that they are brilliant men, smart men, and that they are on the job all the time. We're just human beings down here--all different. We take all these things into consideration. You can't help it."


Story in here regarding Edward J. Hart (D-NJ)--three speeches in sixteen years--one of the ten most eloquent men in the U.S.A.--words like music, et cetera--McCormack said to him that he should speak more, that he owed it to himself, his family, his district, and his country to use his eloquence--"When he spoke, the House paused and listened. But he didn't have that 'it.'"


He talked regarding legislation on an appropriations bill as source of some problems, but not many--if legislation goes through, people are pretty much agreed on it--lots of times, they get no rule from the Rules Committee, and any member who is "on his toes" can object, and it will be stricken out.


"The subcommittee chairmen love to say they cut the budget. I understand that--even if they cut too much. But there's always a supplemental. Sometimes, I think they appropriate for ten months and then expect the agencies to come back for more. Of course, you can't tell how much they cut unless you take the whole picture--supplementals and all, and not just the first appropriation. If we know there is enough money in there for nine or ten months, we won't worry too much. They can come back and get more--not all they want, but a large piece of it. So you always have the supplemental as a safety valve."