The Center for Legislative Archives

Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - Harold C. Ostertag - 1964


Interview Notes Index

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Interview with Rep. Harold C. Ostertag (R-NY)
April 1964

No great changes since John Taber (R-NY), the former ranking minority member on Appropriations, except he went through the story again about Appropriations Committee Chairman Clarence Cannon (D-MO) telling him and Gerald R. Ford (R-MI) that he wasn't going to recognize Appropriations ranking minority member Ben F. Jensen (R-IA). "The rules say that the chairman of the Committee is an ex officio member of all the subcommittees. But the rules don't say anything about the ranking minority member. Taber did it for me, and I did it for Taber, but I'm not going to do it any more." He said the Republicans lost one vote in markup, and that was the consequence.


At the beginning of this talk, he said that Cannon reminisced about the history of the Appropriations Committee, the importance of the Appropriations Committee and his relationship with Taber. "They were a couple of meat axe cutters. Oh, they had their differences. They even had a fist fight once. But in spite of their differences, they were very close.


"Mr. Cannon is very quick to get angry. At least three men since I've been there on the Committee have fought with him. They've taken punches and gotten black eyes."


Regarding the abolition of the Deficiency Subcommittee, he said that, "I was in favor of that. You had one committee handling all the deficiencies and supplementals. The executive branch would send over all these cats and dogs, and the committee didn't have the background on them. You had the regular committees left out. I complained to the old man about that. A lot of us did, and maybe criticism was just catching up."


He soft pedals the punitive nature of the abolition--he says Cannon could have taken the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) away from Albert Thomas (D-TX) if he had really wanted "to do a hatchet job on Thomas." Since he didn't, Ostertag is inclined to think that the complaints of others were controlling. The same thing with the General Accounting Office (GAO)--there's a logic to having it in the Legislative Subcommittee, and it's a small matter. But Thomas thinks that GAO was taken away by Cannon to get even with him.


Story of 1962 NASA budget: Ostertag wants four hundred million cut. Thomas is "adamant"--no cuts. Cannon supports Ostertag in committee. Thomas "bangs the gavel and adjourns the meeting." Cannon calls Ostertag, and they talk about it. "The next morning when I went over to the Committee room, there was the old man sitting in the hall, waiting for me. I said, what are we going to do, Mr. Chairman? He said, we'll do the best we can. We went into the meeting together. Mr. Cannon made my motion for me. A four hundred million dollar cut. The vote was four Democrats on one side and four Republicans plus Cannon on the other side. We were deadlocked. Then Thomas offered a cut of fifty million dollars. And again the vote was four Republicans plus Cannon versus Thomas and three Democrats. The Democrats were voting with their chairman but against the big Chairman. Then Cannon started to make another motion, and Thomas said, I don't recognize you. And Cannon said, I've got a right to make a motion, and I make a motion. And Thomas said, I don't recognize you. And they started to go at it shaking their fists at each other. I know Thomas pretty well, and so I turned to him and spoke in a low voice with all the home spun tones I could get. The old man is deaf and can't hear you all the time--though you never can tell whether he hears you or not. I said, Albert, let's not let our emotions get the better of us. You've got to be reasonable. If you don't cut this budget someone else is going to do it for you. So I proposed a two hundred million dollar cut, and it was voted in. The full Committee accepted it, the House did, and so did the Senate."


Story about Rochester family which drives all night to Washington, comes to his apartment, and asks him to stop their son from going to Japan. It turns out he wants to marry a Japanese girl. He calls the Army. They won't interfere in the private life of personnel. A little while later he's in a hearing. George Mahon (D-TX), complains to Air Force Secretary Harold E. Talbott that the Committee men get rather poor treatment from the Army. He says their cases are turned over to low ranking officers. Talbott replies, "Who do you think you are, wanting special privileges?" The Committee jumps all over him, and finally Talbott apologizes. He retreats, and he says, "No case is too small for me or General [Nathan F.] Twining [Air Force Chief of Staff]. Bring us your troubles, etc." Ostertag is visiting next with Twining, and he says, "I've got a case for you, General." He explained the problem and asked the General to keep the boy out of Japan. Well, he did, and now the boy is married to a Rochester girl, very happy, et cetera, has written and said how grateful he is, et cetera. Two weeks later, an old friend calls, and says his son is a Marine, and that he wants to marry a Japanese girl, and he can't do it. What he wants to know is whether Ostertag can help him out and enable him to marry this Japanese girl whom he loves, the family loves, et cetera. So he does that for his old friend. In two weeks, he has handled two opposite cases. "There's no consistency. They're just human problems." Illustrative of case work.


Regarding the Bow task force report. "It was our policy, but we couldn't have done it without the Democrats. We put pressure on them you might say." He stressed Republican initiative, Democratic response, and lack of partisan fights in the Committee.

Additional Comments
"We throw millions and billions around in here like hay."


"We had a gentlemen's agreement in markup to make a fifty million cut--let them take it anywhere they want it. It was an across-the-board kind of cut. Well, I got thinking about it afterward and got pretty unhappy. So I went to see the subcommittee chairman. I said, 'That's not a big enough cut. I've got to reserve on that.' He said, 'Well, we've got to go in together on that; let's go down to my office and talk it over.' So he got the Chairman of the Committee and a few others, and we sat down, and they said, 'How much of a cut will you take?' I said one hundred and fifty million. Well, we talked it back and forth. I argued that they wouldn't be hit by it. That fifty million was no better than nothing and that if we couldn't cut anywhere. I said they had more than they knew what to do with anyway, and so on, and so on. Finally the subcommittee chairman said, 'Will you take one hundred million dollars?' I finally said all right. I'll take one hundred million dollars."


In the conference he said, "I didn't have much help on my side." He said that the senators and others argued about the psychological problem of cutting the NASA budget. He ended up with a sixty million dollar cut--ten million dollars more than he would have had if he hadn't made the argument.


"I don't want to disillusion you, but I'll bet if I went to the director of that agency today and asked him if that sixty million dollars really hurt his agency, he'd say no."


"I didn't ask to go on the Appropriations Committee. I just wanted to get off Agriculture. I had in mind Interstate and Foreign Commerce and one other. Then they came and told me, after the meeting, that of all the ones talked about I had been selected for the Committee. It wasn't a case of my asking them for the job, but the other way around. They asked me if I would take the job. I said I'd take it, but I didn't put any drive on at all. The leadership wanted me."


William T. Cahill (R-NJ) was the New Jersey man who was defeated in 1963 in the contest with Louis C. Wyman (R-NH).


William Henry Harrison (R-WY): "He'd been trying to get on for a long time." Stressed that he had been around quite a while. He had served several terms and then had a break and had then come back again.


Cannon called in Ostertag and Ford, and he told them about his plans and of his feelings toward Jensen--"he said he was thinking of changing some of the Committee procedures--in the markup, for instance. He said that he had always recognized John Taber and that he [Taber] had voted ex officio in the markup. But he [Cannon] said that he didn't have to recognize him [Jensen], that he [Cannon] was the only ex officio member. He said he couldn't recognize Ben Jensen the way he recognized John Taber, and was thinking of not letting him [Jensen] be ex officio. He didn't ask our opinion. He just called us in and told us he was thinking of doing it. The members on his side didn't know he did it. They don't know what he's thinking of. All the boys on that side say that Cannon never tells you what he's doing."