The Center for Legislative Archives

Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - John R. Pillion - 1959


Interview Notes Index

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



Interview with Rep. John R. Pillion (R-NY)
May 25, 1959

General remarks: Cooperative, conservative, strong views on policy.


Why he wanted to be on the committee: "A legislative committee proposes, and the Appropriations Committee disposes"--"There's more power in Appropriations"--"a key committee."


He speaks of the "popularity" or the "unpopularity" of a bureau as a factor.


Foreign aid is "an unpopular" example--badly administered--"mismanagement and thievery." It is in "disrepute"--"a tendency for Congress to bear down on an agency which doesn't have the acceptance of the electorate"--this organization doesn't have "the political backing" that the Post Office has.


Does presentation help? "To a certain extent." He wishes that the committee sat up on a dais--they don't, and he wishes they did. This is in connection with his feeling of inferiority before the horde of bureaucrats which comes before his subcommittee. (See below.)


In the Post Office Subcommittee: "The chairman is very powerful and nine out of ten times what he says goes"--unless a bloc forms against him.


"He forms personal relationships with the Secretary of the Treasury."


Regarding Mr. John E. Fogarty (D-RI): he only saw him once in Public Works Subcommittee hearings. "My God, is he on the committee". "Oh yes, I guess I saw him there once."


Regarding the Corps of Engineers: "They come in there with their portfolios--with every expert they can get hold of." He reads the list of "all the people they bring in." There are only about five members of the subcommittee present, "and then outside the hearing room they've got five people sitting with suitcases full of materials." The staff of the committee has "theoretical knowledge but no field knowledge"--"We have no experts and not enough investigators" to get into the details. We were "babes in the woods."


How are decisions made? The overall idea of politics--He says the Democrats favor giving money, and Republicans are "inclined to take a cut at anything that looks cutable."


Regarding the subcommittee chairman: "He gets what he wants nine times out of ten"--he used the words "absolute power."


"When two ranking members work together over the course of many years they don't go at each other very often" (regarding the Gary-Canfield Committee [J. Vaughan Gary, D-VA, and Gordon Canfield, R-NJ]).


Regarding full committee treatment: It is "very cursory"--"You don't go barging into the other man's field unless something is patently wrong."


Regarding floor action: "A man's got a pet project and is well liked and makes a good case for it on the floor, they'll put in some money." This probably applies more to public works than to most others, and maybe that's what he was thinking about. He says it's an "unwritten law" that committee members back the committee on the floor.


Regarding getting on the committee: "It was a hard fight--it wasn't easy." He had been on the appropriations committee in the New York State Legislature; during the fight for the minority leadership he had backed Charlie Halleck (R-IN). He went to John Taber (R-NY), the ranking minority member on Appropriations, and he went to others on the Committee on Committees, which he called "the vacancy committee"--it "took a lot of work". (He had tried before to get on the committee under Minority Leader Joseph Martin [R-MA] and failed.)


In answer to a question regarding the power of the Appropriations Committee, he spoke of the custom that appropriations originate in the House as giving the House committee special importance. He called the Appropriations Committee the committee with the purse.


"They not only pad their budgets, that's putting it mildly, there isn't a one of them that doesn't come to the Budget Bureau and ask for 25 per cent more than they need"--the Budget Bureau "cuts them down and cuts them down"--"Their one mania is to spend all the money authorized by law." "Bureaucracy feeds on itself like cancer"--they "build up organizations for themselves". Example: the Corps of Engineers begins with navigation, then engages in flood control, and finally is interested in recreation. He looked upon this as a kind of inevitable slippery-slope proposition.


Regarding my question as to why the House always cuts, he said, "That's a number one assumption." "You can always whittle them down a bit because they always put fat in their budget"--except where they come in and show productivity.


Regarding the Bureau of Reclamation: "not a very good reputation"--"economic foolishness" to put water on arid land, and then grow more and more farm products.


Regarding rural electrification: has had hard going--borrows at 2 per cent interest.


Regarding learning the ropes: "You just go there and listen"--"They're not going to let me come in and run the Committee, an upstart like me."


The Public Works Subcommittee "takes the gaff of the public and the membership."


At fifty-five he is a young man on the committee he says.


Most of the legislative committees are "packed"--a man gets put on as an expert and becomes "a special pleader for interests."


He looks to the leadership for "a little guidance and information."


Mr. Ben F. Jensen (R-IA) wants to cut everything except the appropriations on soil conservation.


The House committee is a "more conservative group" than the Senate committee--the Senate always increases appropriations above the House figure.


The Appropriations Committee is "the most conservative committee"--they are older men to begin with--and the membership is selected very carefully--"If you have any wild ideas on our side, the Republican side, you just don't get on the committee"--on the Democratic side the members of the committee tend to be more conservative than the Democratic House membership as a whole.