Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - Otto E. Passman - 1959
Access to this interview is subject to the deed of gift of December 14, 1993.
Interview with Rep. Otto E. Passman (D-LA)
June 8, 1959
General remarks: Highly nervous--irritated by things in general--caught him in a moment of legislative in-fighting--kept saying, "you understand," at end of each sentence--more of a cutter.
Regarding closely knit committee: He thought it was not, and went into the fragmentation of subcommittees--"Why, you'd be branded an impostor if you went into one of those other subcommittee meetings. The only time I go is by appointment, by arrangement with the chairman at a special time. I'm as much a stranger in another subcommittee as I would be in the legislative committee on Post Office and Civil Service. Each one does its work apart from all the others. That's one of the disappointing things about this Committee on Appropriations--very disappointing."
Why on committee? "If you want to work diligently and apply yourself, you can do the public a great service by cutting out a lot of what we call fat."
How on committee? He made his wishes known to the Louisiana member on Ways and Means, the man who looked after one particular "zone"--he didn't see the speaker, just Ways and Means--"If I had it to do over again, I'd see the speaker"--as if he just didn't know enough, but made it anyway.
You are "damn lucky" if you get an amendment through the full committee.
His reflections on the water hyacinth fight which was coming up the next day and which had him very upset at the time, trying to get the attached letter mimeographed, calling up the printing room, et cetera: "It's a struggle between the Committee Chairman [Clarence Cannon, D-MO] and one of his chairmen. This is the first time I ever quarreled with the chairman; but he's working awfully hard against me. We've always gotten along fine, but I caught him in a bad mood on Friday. It's a lot more bitter than it looks from the gallery. Oh, I'm going to get rolled tomorrow, I know it. The Chairman is making it a personal matter. I'm working awfully hard, but I'm going to get licked. I'm not a defeatist, but I can't see victory. The Chairman is calling up all the other chairmen of committees and saying, 'We followed you and so you ought to follow us. You can't go against your committee.' When you have nineteen other committee chairmen and you say to them, 'You can't go against the committee,' that's a pretty powerful argument. They're even going across the aisle and saying, 'If you'll vote against the Passman amendment, I'll tell the Senate to put back your project and we'll hold it in conference.' What can you do against that kind of trading? Oh, the boys are working. And so am I. The Speaker is supporting me, but not as hard as I'd like. I haven't supported him too well on some issues like public housing, so he's not working very hard for me. But he's supporting me. But I'm going to get rolled. When you get rolled, it lowers your prestige. It takes the wind out of your sails. I've never been defeated on an amendment yet--never been defeated, but I will be tomorrow. You've got to have an awful thick hide to be in this business. I've cut 2.6 billion dollars from the foreign aid bill in four years, and the Chairman knows it; but it's not how meritorious your service has been. He's mad at me for something else, and this is his way of getting back at me." His guard was down and his remarks pertain to the elemental political facts and human fears. He probably exaggerated the intensity of opposition. But his elation (hugging his colleagues) at his victory was boundless. Might analyze this vote.
Regarding his strategy in writing a letter to other members on the water lily fight (see attached): "I'm not writing the letter. I've written to the membership three times this year, and you have to hold back or you'll lose your effectiveness. I wouldn't write to the membership again for anything this year. So I got one of my colleagues (from Louisiana) to do it."
He thinks well of the Budget Bureau--"We couldn't get along without it." He sees it as an economy force, for he speaks of "two trimmings"--He won't take their views as binding, but he thinks they do a good job.
"There's no room for play on this committee. . . . I'm holding hearings from ten to twelve, two to five, and seven to eleven at night."
Regarding his constituents--do they understand? "I'm afraid not." His job is too big, and he works so hard that they couldn't understand it.
He sees a good deal of partisanship on the committee--and is, perhaps a deviant member in this respect
He calls the effort to cut "a mad chase." The agencies "are making a mockery" out of the whole process by asking for more than they need and taking more than they can obligate." In some instances, they ask for more than they need. They get cut year after year, and so they say, 'They're going to cut us so let's put in everything we think is necessary.' I'd do that if I were in their place." Example, the appropriation for the Ryukyus: "Last year we cut them pretty close. But just today while I was in subcommittee hearings, a note was passed to me saying that the Commissioner of the Ryukyus had 23,500 left over and wanted my okay to air condition the first two floors of the administration building. We thought we cut them pretty close, but we didn't get it all."
Some people talk conservative on the floor, and in subcommittee they vote to spend--that's bad, he thinks.
How find soft spots? "The past is prologue; look to the past. That's what I do. I always check this year's testimony against last year's testimony."
He says that he never became more conservative on the committee, because he always was conservative.
Regarding subcommittee assignments: He recommends personnel to Cannon, and then Cannon decides. He feels that his wishes are considered.
[Letter attached to interview transcript]
June 8, 1959
The amendment offered by Honorable Otto Passman of Louisiana, providing for a program to eradicate water lilies in the Southeastern United States will come up for a vote on Tuesday, June 9, and we do hope you can see your way clear to support it.
This plant literally spreads like wildfire and is a deadly menace to agriculture, fish and wildlife and navigation. The damage in Louisiana alone amounts to over $30,000,000.00 a year. The other States presently directly affected are North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas, and there is clear evidence that this pest is spreading into other areas.
Please understand that this is not a new program or a new start. It was specifically approved and authorized by Public Law 500 of the 85th Congress. Last year Congress appropriated $282,000.00 for the current fiscal year, and the work has already begun. The Bureau of the Budget requested $500,000.00 for the next fiscal year, but for reasons which we cannot understand this item was deleted from the Public Works Appropriation bill. The Committee of the Whole restored the item in the bill last week and a separate vote on it will take place Tuesday, June 9.
This is a joint program by the Federal Government and the States involved and is of great importance to national commerce. We would be personally grateful to you if you would join our effort to uphold the action of the Committee of the Whole. With appreciation of your support, we are
Very sincerely yours,
EDWIN E. WILLIS
Member of Congress
T. A. THOMPSON
Member of Congress