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Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - John J. Riley


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



Interview with Rep. John J. Riley (D-SC)
June 8, 1959

General remarks: Genial old gentleman--very interested in talking about defense policy--had to keep pulling him back--very cooperative--key word was experience.


How on committee? He was in Congress for two terms, and served on Banking and Currency. Then he was defeated for reelection. He came back two years later. "When I came back, I was invited back on Banking and Currency. . . . Friends of mine on the Ways and Means Committee said there was a chance that I could get on Appropriations. When I heard there was a chance, I jumped at it. I'm only the fifth man from South Carolina to get on Appropriations. . . . We on the committee flatter ourselves by believing that it's the most important committee in the House." He didn't request membership.


He was a banker, insurance and real estate man.


Regarding subcommittee assignment: He asked for Defense and got it--he said that's the way you do it, in line with your experience and interests--there are a lot of training bases in South Carolina (climate et cetera)--He didn't ask for Public Works, but "I live under a lucky star and I got it." Charleston Harbor and a big Atomic Enery Commission plant in South Carolina.


He said the revolt against the defense bill this year was on the part of the younger men--"You've got to have fresh blood . . . the young men make some very fine contributions, sometimes. But they get a little drastic, I might say that. I had stars in my eyes, too, when I came here, but I got them out. . . ." "You get experience and get to know the angles" (or something to that effect).


When I asked about getting along well, he said, yes, that the Appropriations Committee did. Why? He stressed the fact that there are not many changes in personnel--in eight years, he has moved up only one spot--yet in his second year, he jumped ten spots--He feels that the experience of doing the same thing year after year with the same group is most important to a feeling of togetherness--He places great emphasis on experience.


The longer you've been on the committee--"You get more influence. That's natural, the more experience you have." "Experience is a great thing."


"You bring out a billion dollar bill, and you have trouble getting a quorum. But you have a twenty-five or thirty thousand dollar bill and everybody's got ideas on it. I've often wondered about that. Probably it's so big that they can't understand it. . . . People say to me, 'How can you deal with it?' I tell 'em, 'I just take ten dollars and add 000,000,000.'"


Not very often a minority report: "Well, you get the facts--most of the appropriations are technical matters, and after people have dealt with them for a long time they are generally in accord." The idea is that the facts and experience combine to promote togetherness.


He speaks feelingly of the natural tendency of all bureaucrats to want to grow.


Regarding Defense agency people: "These fellows don't sell themselves short. They always ask for a little more than they need. . . . We know there are weak spots left in the bill, but after five months of hearings we still can't find them all." The idea here is that you don't feel too bad about a deep cut because there are assumed to be many weak spots which you have missed.


Regarding Budget Bureau: "I think what they ought to do is tell us how much money is available and how much we can spend. But they tell us where to spend the money and how much for each purpose. I think they've exceeded their authority. I don't have to go by the budget figure."


George H. Mahon (D-TX): "He works very understandingly and cooperatively with the subcommittee. He is very diplomatic. Usually his idea gets into the bill." He thinks Mahon knows a lot, is capable and is a gentleman.


"Some subcommittee chairmen are more autocratic than others. . . . Most of them are right fine gentlemen." The "autocratic" reference seems to pertain to Appropriations Committee Chairman Clarence Cannon (D-MO).


At the end, he said that the Chairman had removed a man from a subcommittee chairmanship at the beginning of the session--"wasn't doing his job"--never done in the middle of the session--he was taken off the committee and moved to another subcommittee, since you couldn't leave a fellow on the committee as a member (it would be "right embarrassing").


Regarding lobbying on defense--not much: on public works--yes, they are inundated--from all over the country people come in--very good salesmen, too."


Do constituents understand? "Not fully."


He speaks of the importance of seniority, and is very conscious of it--"I always tell my folks it's better to have a sorry congressman on a good committee than a smart congressman on a sorry committee. And that's the truth. The work is done in committees."


He stresses that subcommittee chairmen carry the ball in markup, because "he has more information than anybody else."


"Don't sell these staff folks short. They've been around a long time and have a lot of information. They know where the loopholes are."