Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - Robert F. Sikes - 1959
Access to this interview is subject to the deed of gift of December 14, 1993.
Interview with Rep. Robert L. F. Sikes (D-FL)
June 10, 1959
General remarks -- cordial, expansive, talkative -- something of a blowhard.
Why on the committee? "I've wondered a thousand times myself. If I had stayed on the Foreign Affairs Committee, I would have been Chairman twice now -- with nothing to do but meet 3 or 4 times a year to rubberstamp the giveaways that the administration sends up here -- and then be a big shot for the rest of the year. You asked me why I went on the Appropriations Committee. Well, it's a committee that has a lot of prestige. If you want a committee that gets you into the center of the workings of government, the Appropriations Committee is the best in the Congress. I can also do more for people back home. That's why I went on the Committee. I had to wait 8 years before I could get on because a man from Florida was already on there. I wasn't impressed with what the Foreign Affairs Committee could do, so I went to Armed Services and waited there for a vacancy to open up on Appropriations that I could get. I knew when I came that I was going to be behind a group of young men from the South who would be on the committee forever. I knew I wouldn't get very high on the committee. . . . I sit behind closed doors 4 hours every day and nobody knows you're in Congress. But I'd do it again.
Re. subcommittee assignment: he asked for and got the subcommittee on defense -- didn't elaborate, but did say there was "some contest" over it -- he didn't ask for any of his other subcommittees.
He talks about the subcommittee on which he serves -- "Every subcommittee reflects the temperament of the chairman." He compares Rooney and Mahon at some length. Rooney will compromise, but "he wants you to agree with his view." "It's his bill." "He knows more about it than anybody else. He works harder than any other subcommittee chairman. He takes a witness and digs and digs and digs and digs, page by page, and line by line." He never lets anyone else take over the subcommittee hearings. The pressure to agree with him is strong. Mahon: "He has a pretty good idea of what he wants but he's more friendly to compromise." He will let other people take over the hearings for a day or two. The pressure to agree is not so great as with Rooney. In the defense subcommittee, "The first couple of days is usually a knockdown drag-out affair, until a pattern begins to form of things we can all agree on." (markup) Sheppard is sort of in between -- he sets up categories for military construction, and things that don't fall in the categories are cut out -- the military construction subcommittee was set up because defense "had too much work."
Subcommittee recommendations are not likely to be changed in full Committee -- "It's a matter of 'you respect my work and I'll respect your work.'"
Cannon emphasizes that the Committee should stick together -- he stresses it -- "Unfortunately, the Chairman does not have the kind of personality that inspires such support. Usually, he has half the Committee mad at him, and that's not the way to get committee support". He spoke of the committee as "a loose confederation".
He spoke very frankly about Cannon's power -- Can he remove subcommittee chairmen? "It's never been tested." He removed Jed Johnson from a subcommittee once, but Johnson did not take it to the full committee -- he "did not make a fight of it."
Re. the Thomas episode: Cannon sent around a new arrangement of subcommittee jurisdictions -- "There were a lot of changes, but it looked like it was targeted at Thomas." Thomas had Atomic Energy Commission and others, which made his subcommittee, next to defense, the most powerful one -- "A group of us got together and worked out a compromise. We took it to the Chairman and he accepted it, because he knew he was going to lose." There was no vote on it -- just a vote on final approval.
On the subcommittee, there is a strong feeling to stick together -- "There's a strong feeling that the subcommittee should stick together."
Re. presentation of the administrators -- "Some men come up here and don't know what their people are doing. They haven't done their lessons. They read a little statement, and then can't answer any questions. They have to ask other people to answer their questions for them. That doesn't make a good impression with the committee members." He, too, mentions the importance of trust and confidence between the committee and administrator.
Bureaus "always ask for more than they need."
How find soft spots? Experience -- "After you've been here and if you've been through the budget before, you know the agencies, and you know where to look." Very rarely" do bureaus tell congressmen informally what they really need -- "They always ask for everything."
Re. attitude of other members, he mentioned the fact that Cannon is "not very popular," and that this shows up.
Do your constituents understand? "They figure that if I want to spend 4 hours a day monkeying around with defense problems, that's all right, but it's no excuse for not doing the things they are interested in. I can find four extra hours to devote to committee work if I want to, but they are concerned with what I can do for them in other ways. They know I'm on Appropriations and that it's an important committee, and that's all right. I can help them by being on Appropriations, though, I know I can."
Re. Bureau of the Budget: "Mostly, the feeling is anti." He called the Bureau of the Budget the "pet hate" of the committee -- usurping power etc.
He stressed the need for staff at great length and, said he has supported an increase strongly since he came on the Committee. But "Mr. Cannon and Mr. Taber came here in the days when you only needed one clerk, and they think the committee's business can be run the same way."
Re. conference committee: "The Senate members usually come in about 15 minutes late. Half of them aren't there. They come in with a holier than thou or a higher than thou attitude. . . . There is that attitude on their part. We hate to go over there to meet. . . . We meet on their territory. . . . They have six years to wait before coming to any agreement. We have only two. They take the attitude that they can't understand why we won't agree to the higher figures -- and they're always higher. They say, 'Senator so and so won't stand for this cut'. Everything is done on a personal basis there. That works with some House committees, but I'm happy to say that it doesn't happen with the committees I'm on. We really put their feet to the fire and teach them the facts of life. We just sit there -- sometimes it takes days to let them know you mean business. The one thing they don't like is when you threaten to take an it em back to the House for instructions. They know the House will back you up. . . . l don't know why it is, but it's true. . . . Maybe it's because they're self-conscious about letting the public know that their figures are always higher. . . . Usually, we end up with a compromise of some sort."