The Center for Legislative Archives

Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - Harold C. Ostertag - 1959


Interview Notes Index

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



Interview with Rep. Harold C. Ostertag (R-NY)
May 25, 1959

General remarks: Very cooperative, started slowly making legal points, et cetera, and afterwards warmed up considerably.


On William H. Natcher (D-KY): "He doesn't count--what I mean is, he hasn't been on the Committee very long." On cutting: "More often than not it's an arbitrary cut--we look at what they ask for, and we say, they've got too much money. We look at what they got last year and say, what the hell do they want with so much money? Then we give them half-way between what they ask for and what they got last year."


On seniority: "Certain courtesies and regards" between the minority and the majority which you get when you have been around a while. He stressed seniority privileges and compared them to the state legislature: "major and minor league."


"I've had a lot of experience in the legislature. I'm not an authority on government, like you are, but I've lived it, you see. . . . When I first came to Congress I instinctively compared it to the state legislature." Then he went into seniority privileges. "In Albany the minority was nothing." Now, he said, "The Democrats don't have any advantage over me with respect to offices." (A matter of seniority.)


At the beginning of the interview he wanted to stress technical details, or fundamentals, such as appropriations made for no year or one year; also the money that comes directly from the Treasury and bypasses the Appropriations Committee, the so-called back door to the Treasury, where the legislation makes provision for a housing authority or some other agency to draw money directly from the Treasury. Also, the problem of the item veto. Also, the conference committees injunction to go between the House and the Senate figure. Also, the difference between appropriations that need special authorization and those with a continuing statutory basis. Most of mine have a statutory basis, but the education construction would be an example of the former.


He was very conscious of the fact that the Budget Bureau gives a hearing and cuts requests--the "watch-dog" he calls it--agencies normally put in "a quarter's more appropriations than they need," and the Budget Bureau cuts it out--"this budget of seventy million would be a hundred million" without the Bureau of the Budget.


He made a point of the power of the minority on the Appropriations Committee. He referred to them as the "buffer."


He talked of "making policy on the committee" quite frankly--but he began by saying, "sometimes you get Congress doing what the executive ought to do, and the executive doing what Congress ought to do"--as if it wasn't quite natural for Congress to "make policy"--though he recognized it frankly. An example--the Defense Subcommittee cut out $216 million for an aircraft carrier and put the money into anti-submarine warfare--"making policy," he says.
There is some partisan spirit on defense--called the committee majority "masterminds" on defense matters--they are trying to put into the appropriation bill the stipulation that the President must use thirty thousand more for the army than he put in for--he tells them in the subcommittee that he will object and raise a point of order on the floor--that stops it--he speaks heatedly about the President's knowledge in this field. "You don't want some --- --- congressmen telling you how to run the military; some guy that doesn't know any more about it than I do."


"I don't want you to get the idea that it is all done point by point" (regarding my remark that off-the-record portions seemed very important--it refers to the work of the committee). He agreed--and that's when he said, "More often than not, it is an arbitrary cut."


He says I can deduce a lot by going from the hearings to the committee reports.


He used the phrase "learning the ropes," apropos of his experience in Albany. He said that by the time he came here, he had learned the ropes.


He agreed with me about "cycles, or whatever you want to call it--the political weather vane"--and he spoke of the liberals in Congress now and predicted that the budget will be larger than the President wants regarding some bureaus doing better in a variety of factors differing from case to case--Veterans' Administration boosted in committee--four million dollars restored by the subcommittee after the Budget Bureau had taken it out--"an emotional reaction to medical research"--He "went along" with it "because I knew it was going through anyway"--it all depends on "the very nature of the program" or "emotional reaction" above--this emotional reaction idea is similar to what Appropriations Committee Clerk Kenneth Sprankle and Assistant Clerk Paul Wilson spoke of as the "popularity" of a program--in any case, different reasons in different cases.


"Very few of the people back home, my constituents, know how big the job is down here."


"Ordinarily" or "usually" the House goes along with the recommendation of the Appropriations Committee--but he generalized that they were more apt to raise it than cut it (no probe possible).


I am impressed with the extent to which he is bounded by his subcommittee experience--all of his examples are from his subcommittee--real specialization--he says that I should give only a list of bureaus within the subcommittees' jurisdiction to each congressman--implies that he wouldn't know the first thing about the Bureau of Indian Affairs (he used that one specifically). It was at this point that the light with respect to subcommittee importance first dawned on me.


"When I first came here I used to say certain things and the older members would look at me with a jaundiced eye or jump me, but as time went on I didn't say these things any more. . . . It's not tradition so much as knowing the score, knowing the history of things and the facts of life." He is not so conscious of tradition as he is of fundamentals--his particular stress on fundamentals, his repeated assertion that Mr. Clarence Cannon (D-MO), Chairman of Appropriations, and Mr. John Taber (R-NY), the ranking minority member are "Sticklers for fundamentals." He prides himself on his knowledge of technicalities in the process.


Bureau personnel will come to him between times in order to 1) re-program within a given area and 2) to re-draw authority. Both of these are done by the subcommittee.


When he first came to Congress he was put on the Agriculture Committee. He was put on because the farm groups in the entire northeastern section of the United States got behind him as their candidate--he didn't consent--and once on the committee he was unhappy--"Long before the two years was up I told the leadership that I was unhappy in the committee . . . I was frustrated and boxed in. They weren't doing anything most of the time. Besides I was no expert on agriculture and I wasn't up on the programs. The district I represent, though it has some agriculture in it, was not primarily that. I was unhappy."


The idea of apprenticeship is very strong with him. "People got to know me." You have a chance to "show your colors and prove yourself." "They wanted me, make no mistake about that." "They saw that I had stability and was right thinking;" and when the vacancy opened up, I went on. Actually, he asked for one of several committees, Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Interstate Commerce. "But Appropriations was first."


It's a "much sought after post." "The Appropriations Committee is a select committee from the standpoint of importance and work." A good example of the two sources of prestige for the committee, and it is, I think, typical that he should cite work as one of the sources of prestige.


Regarding Albert Thomas (D-TX), he says, "He knows more about these agencies than they do themselves." He's "done his homework."


He defends the seniority system on the committee and on the subcommittee. You have to stay at it a number of years. Once you are on a subcommittee you move up--on the committee his seniority was determined by drawing names out of a hat; "a lucky break" that he was first.


Regarding partisanship and the lack of it: "You might think that we Republicans would defend the budget and the administration--but we don't." They look at it "objectively" and not through partisan eyes.


Regarding Mr. Taber: "He's a realistic fellow, he doesn't have his head in the clouds. When he sees a steamroller coming . . . he knows that's the way it's going to be, and he goes on to the next item." He doesn't fight windmills even though he has a strong philosophy of economy. Taber is always for a cut, consistent in philosophy and action.


Remarks of Harry K. Nicholas, Rep. Ostertag's assistant, removed per conditions of the deed of gift, December 14, 1993

Interview with Harold C. Ostertag, Supplement Regarding minority reports: "Well, I don't know why. It's just not a practice on our committee. Usually we're in pretty full agreement on things. Sometimes I don't agree with everything that's in the report. But my disagreement isn't so great that I want a separate expression of views. A disagreement on money isn't like a legislative program--it's a matter of money rather than a difference of philosophy. If it was civil rights or federal aid to education and I didn't agree with the report, that would be a matter of philosophy. I guess that explains it. It's the different nature of the two bills."


"Now, you take these reports. They aren't law. They're just an expression. We sometimes indicate dissatisfaction with the program . . . and it's in the nature of a directive to the agency."


Regarding a cut in civilian personnel of the military: "We think they're top-heavy over there, and that they can do an efficient job with less personnel. That's our judgment. They don't agree; and probably the Senate's over there now, putting some of that damned money back. The Senate always raises. It never cuts. And that's a fact . . . I don't know what they're doing over there. They're probably throwing everything but the kitchen sink in the bill."


Regarding cutting for show and then putting it all right back in the supplemental: "I prevailed on the committee to keep the money in. I said, `I'm sick and tired of cutting this money out and then having to put it back in a supplemental.' When all is said and done, who are we to put ourselves above the administrator in making the estimate as to how much will be needed. . . ? If it's not spent, it's not spent, that's all." He commented on how this kind of a cut looks good on paper--that it looks like a real cut but isn't--this whole comment regarding veterans' pensions.


He sees very little pressure from interest groups on appropriations. "Budget and appropriations are operations in support of the government. It's between the legislators and the administrators, and the public isn't involved--well, they're involved indirectly, but not directly." He cited veterans organizations who make perfunctory statements to the committee, but the committee has to appropriate anyway--it's mandatory.


"We can't put law into an appropriations bill. If we do, it's subject to a point of order. But we can put a limitation on the amount to be spent on certain things. That's legal, and in that way, we can control the flow of money into a program. . . . We control appropriations, but we control programs, too."


He talked about jurisdictional disputes with legislative committees, caused sometimes by the use of the limitation technique.


Not a lot of pressure from other members--rivers and harbors are the worst there, he said.


Regarding the Senate in conference: "It's just like a fraternity. You've got all this courtesy business--and it's not party line at all. The Democrats and the Republicans do favors for each other. If one of them wants a special project, they'll throw it in the bill for him. It doesn't make any difference whether he's a Democrat or a Republican, they'll give it to him. They load up the bill with all these special things. That's the trouble we run into in conference. When you try to consider the bill on its merits, you're in a hell of a fix. I've never known the Senate to cut an appropriations bill. They always 'up' appropriations bills. . . . There's going to be a conference on the agriculture bill tomorrow, and I can tell you exactly what's going to be said. [Senator Richard] Russell [D-GA] is going to fight to the end to keep his Georgia projects in there. And he will. But he'll have to give in on some and give the House what it wants. . . . Over there, it's just a fancy game of give and take. They give each other what they want, and everybody takes!" The insert in the middle can be lifted out and the statement made into one. (Put that in your book.) Conference activity is "sugaring off."


Jamie Whitten (D-MS) to Ostertag regarding the agriculture conference and the Cornell research item that Ostertag was interested in: "You know, we'll do all we can, Harold. But it's just thievery and horse trading."


He says that in conference, regarding senators: "They have to look over to their staff and get the answers."