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Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - Prince H. Preston


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



Interview with Rep. Prince H. Preston (D-GA)
June 4, 1959

General remarks: Excellent respondent--frank, very capable--a warm-hearted man--much impressed.


Why are you on the committee? "It's the committee that gives you the most power with the government agencies, and you're in contact with them all the time for your constituents. Also, it gives you a lot of prestige in the House. After all, if you control the purse strings, that's where the power is.


How did you get on the committee? "I lobbied the members of the Ways and Means Committee for a whole year. The Speaker has a lot to do with it. If he hadn't supported me, I doubt that I would have made it. He will indicate to the Ways and Means Committee who he thinks ought to go on the committee, and I don't say they will always take his advice, but 95 per cent of the time they do. The Speaker has the power here--not Mr. [Clarence] Cannon [D-MO, Chairman of Appropriations]. Mr. Cannon doesn't have anything to say about it."


Regarding subcommittee assignment: "I didn't have anything to say about it. Mr. Cannon rules with an iron hand, in this respect. You could ask Mr. Cannon to go on a subcommittee, but if you did he'd probably put you on some other committee because he'd be afraid you were a partisan and would want to spend money."


Appropos of subcommittee selection, he pointed out that Cannon once split up the Public Works Subcommittee into three sections: East, Midwest and West. On the Eastern section, he put all Westerners, et cetera, et cetera--so that they would not get involved in pushing their pet projects. This example started me thinking more seriously about this method of subcommittee selection--confirmed later by others. Since so many of our expenditures are set in general, and since the Appropriations Committee does operate within fairly narrow limits, this job of whittling away at "pet projects" and "fat" is the essence of their job. They really ought to be seen, it seems to me, as working on the periphery most of the time. The power to go to the heart of a program is surely there, but it is not very often used. Still, as witnessed by the pressure for the back-door approach, contests on the periphery appear to the participants as life and death matters--which they may be, but, it seems, are less frequently so than we might expect. All I am trying to say here is that we need perspective on the "powerful Appropriations Committee."


He says that he could ask Cannon to have a certain man put on his subcommittee or removed from it, but he says he never has, and added that "It wouldn't do any good."


Regarding the Federal Aviation Agency: "Mr. Cannon could have left it under my subcommittee, if he had seen fit. But Mr. [Albert] Thomas [D-TX] lobbied him for it and got it. I didn't say anything to Mr. Cannon about it, one way or the other. Mr. Thomas wanted it, and asked him for it. It's a big bill now."


Regarding subcommittee markup--the key point in the bill: "The day before we are going to mark up the bill, I sit down with my clerk, and we go over the committee print. I ask him to look back over the testimony at what was said, and we talk it over. Then I write down a figure that I will suggest the next day. If I don't do this, there would be chaos. Some fellow would say, 'Let's cut the hell out of this crowd,' maybe because of a pet peeve of his. And someone else might have a project or have a good friend of his in an agency. So when markup comes, I suggest the figure and explain why I think that should be the one. Ninety-five per cent of the time, that figure prevails. Oh, there may be a lot of discussion, but in the end, that figure usually is accepted. After discussion, I'll say, 'Are there any objections to the figure two million? If not, let's pass to the next item.' Sometimes, there is controversy, and if there is we talk it out. We never take a vote in subcommittee. There is no partisanship on the subcommittee, and you don't get any rigid party-line votes. We talk it out and compromise. The subcommittee chairman is the key person here."


Regarding subcommittee markup: "Of course, Mr. Cannon and Mr. [John] Taber [R-NY, the ranking minority member on Appropriations] are always in favor of the low figure--always looking for a cut. In all the markup sessions I've attended, I've never seen any friction between Mr. Cannon and Mr. Taber. They may disagree in the full committee, but not in subcommittee."


Cannon and Taber work together very closely--remarkable men, old, and, he doesn't see how they do it, such hard work.


"Mr. Cannon doesn't usually take part in floor debate on a bill. He leaves that to his subcommittee chairmen. But he's around, and he knows what's going on."


He stresses hard work, too.


Regarding full committee action: Subcommittee recommendations very rarely changed--he stresses the superior information of the subcommittee people. He said Heath, Education and Welfare was boosted in full committee this year, because John E. Fogarty, (D-RI) asked for it. "The members of the committee have a lot of respect for John Fogarty. And this is an area where we don't dare pinch--heart research and cancer."


Not much done on the floor--very few changes--maybe one out of twenty amendments passes on the floor--It's very difficult to amend an appropriations bill on the floor. . . . We rarely accept any change in money. Sometimes, we will accept changes in language, in order to tighten up an agency."--He says that this year he accepted an amendment between the time the bill was reported and the time it came to the floor--Small Business Administration, it was, "a very popular agency"--He wanted a cut of twenty-seven million, but he accepted a cut of twenty-five million as a trade because he didn't went to risk losing the whole twenty-seven million in a floor fight--so he made a "lawyer's compromise."


Regarding the committee: "It's a fascinating committee to work on. It's a game between you and the agencies. You are trying to trap them and show inefficiency, and they hold practice sessions (before coming up here )."


Regarding administrators: "You learn ways to evaluate an administrator, whether he's doing a good job or just trying to build up--by the way he answers questions, for example."


He discussed several agency heads, placing great stress on administrative ability--He, in general, places great stress on the administrator as key in evaluating a budget request--A. V. Astin, Director, National Bureau of Standards, is a good scientist and a good administrator. Henry Kearns in the Bureau of Foreign Commerce: "He's no good. He's just a Chamber of Commerce guy, and the sky's the limit. So we give him a rough time." The head of Post Office is "an old fogy," but when he came in, he instituted changes. The Weather Bureau head won't delegate: He wants to touch every piece of paper. The Census Bureau head is old, but delegates to a group of good young men.


Also, regarding soft spots: "After you've been on the Appropriations Committee for a number of years, you get a fifth sense about these things. You know what questions to ask. You can evaluate an agency and tell whether it is doing a good job by the way it presents its case."


He agrees that liberals get more conservative as they stay on the committee because, "When you have sat on the committee you see that these bureaus are always asking for more money--always up, never down. They want to build up their organization. . . . You reach the point--I have--where it sickens you, where you rebel against it. Year after year, they want more money. They say, only fifty thousand this year, but you know the pattern. Next year they'll be back for one hundred thousand, then two hundred thousand. The younger members haven't been on the committee long enough, haven't had the experience to know this."


"They say they need seven new positions, but you know that if they tightened up and filled them with people already on the payroll they could get by."


Regarding the attitude of other members toward committee: "It's an unpopular committee in the House. Maybe you are popular as an individual, but not as a committee. We get into legislation on an appropriation bill--quite often we do--and the members of the legislative committees resent it."


Do constituents understand your job? "No, not in the slightest. They call me up, and wonder why they can't talk to me. They say, 'I can't reach Preston.' Well, when I'm over there, presiding over that subcommittee, I don't stop for anything. . . . People don't understand the work of the Appropriations Committee."


He says secret meetings are good. "We get lobbied to spend money, always more, never less. And if you bring a newspaperman in there, a fellow would be under terrific pressure." That is, he would be under pressure to abdicate his true function, cutting the budget. (Secrecy of meetings helps both to give the committee prestige, but to assist it in performing its function--cutting. The committee's activity has a functional side oriented toward cutting and a status side oriented toward prestige and power. This seems similar to the distinction between internal and external activity, and might be pursued.)


Regarding the Senate: "We think that they don't take half the care that we do. That's a fact, et cetera, et cetera."


Regarding the conference committee: It's fascinating--"It's psychology, being stubborn, being boisterous, even walking out if something is very important." "I've seen a conference last for days--weeks. You sit around and no one will give in, and someone will say, 'Well, I guess we had better adjourn.' And you come back the next day." There is a lot of "horse-trading." He mentions Senator Leverett Saltonstall (R-MA) and the radio station, and Senator Pat McCarran (D-NV) and his field offices (see John J. Rooney, D-NY, interview). "Sometimes, both sides are so adamant, I thought we'd never come to a compromise." But, eventually, you arrive at a compromise. "Lots of times we deliberately cut an item too deeply so as to use it for trade bait in conference." "Usually, though, you can get through a conference on an appropriations bill in one day."


He told (in confidence) a story of one conference which tells something about conferences, but more importantly, something of the limits to Cannon's power. See seating arrangement below:


                          x          x House Subcmte Chrmn
                          x          x
                          x          x          Dem. (majority)
                          x          x
                          x          x Cannon
          SENATE                                   HOUSE
                          x          x
                          x          x          Repub. (minority)
                          x          x Taber

The House subcommittee chairman sits next to the chairman of the conference, who is a senator, "so that they can whisper together and negotiate on the side if that becomes necessary." When the State-Justice Conferees came into the room, they saw Cannon sitting next to the chairman, in the place where the subcommittee chairman traditionally sits. Rooney should have been there, but he ended up on the end of the House side, where Cannon should have been. The conference "kicked off," and on the first item Cannon said that the House position was such and such. Then they asked Rooney, who replied that, "If the Chairman (Cannon) is going to run the conference, while I have been the one to sit all these weeks, I am going to leave." And he walked out. Then they turned to Preston, who said that, "If my subcommittee chairman is going to leave, I will, too." And he walked out, and he and Rooney met and went over to the House restaurant. Cannon then adjourned the meeting and came to Rooney, and said that he had made a mistake, et cetera. The next day the conference resumed, with Rooney in proper position. This is a good example of the limits of Cannon's power. (He specifically said, don't put this in the book, and especially not to cite names.)