Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - Louis C. Rabaut
Access to this interview is subject to the deed of gift of December 14, 1993.
Interview with Rep. Louis C. Rabaut (D-MI)
June 3, 1959
General remarks: Very expansive, a real politician, but not, I think, as powerful as he might believe.
Why go on Appropriations? "It deals with the money matters of the government."
An Appropriations Committee assignment is "a prize plum. People argue about which is the most powerful committee, Ways and Means or Appropriations. I could have had either one, but I wanted Appropriations. I've only known one man who went from Appropriations to Ways and Means, and he went because the Speaker asked him to go to even things up."
Regarding Appropriations: "It's been called the third body of the Congress"--other members are resentful.
How on the committee? "I went on through the Speaker, Joe Byrns [D-TN, 1935-1936], . . . there was a unanimous vote when I went on . . . there was one vacancy on the list, and everybody thought that the Congress might change and the bottom men would get thrown off in the next election. I said, 'I'll take the chance,' and that's how I got on Appropriations"--after he was defeated and came back, he got right back on the committee.
The majority of people are fair . . . and if you treat a person the way you want to be treated then it counts like hell--especially in Congress. Oh, you should be nice to anyone, but if you just meet a person once he may not remember it. Around here it grows and grows like a mountain . . . I don't have any enemies. Oh, maybe one. A fellow got mad at me last year, but he was wrong." How do you cut? "Oh, you just feel it after a while (He felt the air with his fingers), and you've got lots of precedents to go by. We say, well, we did this in such and such a case, so why the hell shouldn't we do it now."
He wouldn't go back on the State Subcommittee because they didn't look after him when he was defeated--"I was their friend, and when I was defeated they gave me the cold shoulder . . . when I came back they came down to the station with a limousine. I said I'll ride in your car, but I'll never sit on your subcommittee again."
He went on Public Works. Appropriations Chairman Clarence Cannon (D-MO), put him on.
Regarding Cannon and John Taber (R-NY), the ranking minority member: "Sometimes they work closely together, and other times they're at loggerheads with each other." In the conference committee Cannon and Taber come to every conference--"I don't think that's right. If they agree they can carry the conference on our side." If they agree they can tip the balance either 4-3 or 5-2.
Regarding conferences: I've seen so many conferees that they had to move to a larger room because everybody wanted to know what was going on--"I'm not saying this as a House lover but all the work's done in the House."
Regarding the Senate: "Why, we're the guinea pigs of the country. We have to go back to the country every two years and face the people. The senators can stay down here and do what they want for four years, and then get awful nice the last two years and rely on the short memory of the people."
Advice to newcomer: "Learn the business of your committee."
He relies heavily on his clerk: "If you know each other well, he knows what you did last year and what you're interested in and what you will hop on."
Only once did he get information from inside an agency. He says he discovered the first Communist in government, but he went about it quietly.
Secretary of State Cordell Hull (1933-1944) nicknames him "our friend"--"Why, I reorganized the State Department in financial matters"--Sol Bloom (D-NY, 1923-1949) wanted to do it but couldn't. He asked him to come to his committee. He said it wasn't cricket, but he did take a back room--"up in the back room, I reorganized the State Department in twenty minutes."
He spoke feelingly about how he would have been in line for the chairmanship of Appropriations--the press in Michigan never mentioned this. When he was defeated the press spoke of the great potentialities of his successor--who didn't know his way around at all--"who were they hurting?--themselves. Don't you think I couldn't get anything I wanted for Michigan as chairman of Appropriations--chairman of the Appropriations Committee (he repeated this)? Why certainly."
His constituents don't know about his job because of the press.
The strength of the House in conference depends on the chairman of the subcommittee--who he is and how hard he fights.
Regarding the omnibus appropriation bill: He was the chairman of it--he attended every conference--at the end of the bill, in thirteen words, it showed the size of the cut--"I wanted to cut it a billion but I settled for five hundred and eighty-five million dollars." He said it was given up because it showed in one line the great difference between Senate and House cuts.