Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - Ben Reifel
Access to this interview is subject to the deed of gift of December 14, 1993.
Interview with Rep. Ben Reifel (R-SD)
He is a district-oriented, self starter. "Some members want to get on the Ways and Means Committee or the Committee on Rules. Neither of those interest me in the least. And I don't understand why anyone would want to go on those two committees. They aren't any help to you in your district. They may give you a high prestige threshold, dealing with national issues. But they don't help you to be of any particular service to your constituency."
He wanted the assignment when he came on the Committee in his first term. At that time, it was "a vain hope." He speaks of his interest in reclamation, of the one-half million acres under irrigation, and he spoke of the service for his state as a key. He started right in as follows: "You can get the ear of the agencies downtown a lot easier on Appropriations than you can on other committees. . . . I notice when my staff calls downtown now, the agencies respond a lot quicker and with more concern than they did when I was the lowest ranking minority member on Agriculture."
How did he get on? He spoke of Ben F. Jensen (R-IA), the ranking minority member on Appropriations, "watching over" him during his first term. He and Jensen were from neighboring states and knew each other when Reifel worked for Interior. Jensen to Reifel--"I want you on the Appropriations Committee." "So I followed that up with a letter back, thanking him for the idea. He told me what other people I should see--like Clarence Brown [R-OH, member of the Committee on Committees]--and I went around. He said that as ranking minority member, his wishes would be given consideration, but that he could do it all by himself. When he went before the Committee on Committees, he told them, 'I don't care what you do with these other positions, but I want one for Ben Reifel.'"
He said he had a conservative voting record and that that was "a sinae qua non" on the Republican side.
He got the Interior Subcommittee and was pleased, but he wants Public Works.
I've been very fortunate so far. The next thing is to get on the Public Works Subcommittee."
He feels no problem at all as a freshman. In his first year, he got something. An Indian school system was being changed and modernized where he went to school. He questions the Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner on the schedule and the priorities. The commissioner is vague. Winfield K. Denton (D-MN), who is presiding, gives the commissioner a nudge and says that it seems to him something could be done to speed up construction for a member of the Committee. In the Committee report, there was a statement that four million dollars should be allocated and work should start immediately. "That was my introduction to the Committee. A Democrat helped me out and got that put in the report for me."
He stresses the difference between Agriculture and Appropriations in the business of partisanship. "Last year two of us thought that one item shouldn't go in the bill--one Democratic member and myself. We mentioned it after one of the hearings. When we got to the markup, that item had already been taken out. There was no controversy at all." The point is they work informally.
He stressed the importance of the staff in markup and says that this surprised him a great deal. He says he didn't realize how important the staff man was until markup came. This is a reflection of the importance of Eugene Wilhelm, staff assistant to the Subcommittee on Public Works.