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Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - W. F. Norrell


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



Interview with Rep. W. F. Norrell (D-AR)
May 29, 1959

General remarks: good hearted, cooperative but senile--had heart attack recently--mail oriented.


"Where the money is, there's where the power is." Appropriations is "the most powerful committee--Well, one of the most powerful, let's put it that way--Ways and Means and Appropriations."


How did you get on the Committee? After he was elected, "in December I came down to Washington and talked with the members of the Ways and Means Committee, the speaker, and friends I thought could help me and told them of my wishes to get on the Appropriations Committee. I knew I hadn't a chance. Arkansas is a small state, and Mr. [David D.] Terry [Democrat] from Arkansas was a member of the committee, so I had to take what was left. That's the way it is in Congress, a young man has to take what is left" (here he went into the seniority system). Two years later Terry resigned to run for the Senate--"I asked for it and got it."


He was very conscious of the South's getting seniority--outside of the South people elect a congressman for two years--four years, and then they throw him out"--He cites, Senator J. William Fulbright (D-AR), Senator John L. McClellan (D-AR), Representative Wilbur D. Mills (D-AR), and Representative Oren Harris (D-AR) as examples of southern senior men who are committee chairmen.


His advice to young men on the committee--"work hard, get to know what you're doing as quick as you can. Be a good member of the committee, get along with the other members, and the rest comes easy"--"don't be what we call a rabble rouser . . . you can talk about speech making all you want, and sometimes its necessary if the people of your district are particularly interested in something, to let them know the national government is doing something--but there's one thing that runs all through, and that is answer your mail"--he repeated this again and again. He told me of his techniques for answering mail, and how he's never had opposition except the last two years--he told the story of Mr. George H. Tinkham (R-MA)--he asked Mr. Tinkham, "Congressman, when you have opposition you go hunting in Africa. When you have no opposition you go through the district. How do you do it?--Tinkham replied, "answer your mail." He thinks the seniority rule is a good thing, and that there is nothing better to replace it--"I'm sixth in seniority in Appropriations, I'll never get to be chairman because Clarence Cannon [D-MO, Chairman of Appropriations] has been here for thirty-five years, and he's good for thirty-five more, and that's all right"--it seems that he has a sense for the inevitability of Cannon's hegemony.


He explained the subcommittee's work, he stressed the "item by item."


Regarding the subcommittee chairmen: "he runs the committee. He has a lot of power, but it's all done on the basis of personal friendship. If he tries to get too big the members can whack him down by majority vote. If you know the rules of the Congress a majority of congressmen can run it"--he said he's never known a dictatorial chairman--things are conducted by give and take on his committee.


He rolled the word Congress and congressmen over his tongue with great relish, and I had the feeling he was very proud and content just to be a congressman--I think, also, that he defined his role primarily in terms of answering his mail or constituency service.


"If you didn't have a strong chairman the members of the committee would run off in all directions."


From him, as well as from Jamie L. Whitten (D-MS), came the idea that Congress or members of the House must be elected. They can't be appointed, but a senator can--The senate is not as close to the people, and its members are weaker, presumably for this reason.


Subcommittee men are described as those who know their subject and who have the information.


He seems to be a type--seniority conscious, district oriented, aware of power but not disposed to use it for particular policies, chairman of an unimportant subcommittee, procedurally oriented, never could see the power questions particularly well, aware of the system, able to attune himself to it, but not articulate about it.