The Center for Legislative Archives

Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - Tom Steed


Interview Notes Index

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



Interview with Rep. Tom Steed (D-OK)
June 12, 1959

General remarks: Very interested in substantive programs.


Regarding work load: "It's a thankless task. You work at it all the time. You miss your constituents when they come to see you, and you weaken your political fences back home. It's a consuming mistress."


Why on Committee? His delegation of six men wants to spread itself out and have someone in all areas. (Oklahoma.) He never did explain exactly how he got in--did he come in after George B. Schwabe (R-OK) was killed? "Individually, you want it because there's more power. It's a good grab bag place. Bureaucrats kow-tow to you a lot more when they sit across the table asking you for money than they do to a legislative committee. But I don't know that I have so very much power. This is a large committee--fifty men--and this is one of the things I've wondered about--how much power do you really have?"


Regarding modes of behavior on the committee: If, after a bill has left his subcommittee and is out on the floor, he finds something that ought to go in, "I don't pop off about it on the floor. I run down all the members of the subcommittee, and we talk about it, and they say, 'Well, the only way we can handle it now is for you to present an amendment, and yield to us. We'll say we've discussed this, and it ought to go in, and that we accept your amendment.' But I don't bring it up as a surprise. That's not the way to do it."


Regarding modes of behavior: on subcommittee--"If there's any way on earth to bring out a unanimous report, they'll do it. They'll sit there long hours. They'll backscratch and give and take and compromise . . . (then he went into a long aside about the necessity and value of compromise in legislation). . . . If there's something I feel too strongly about, and just can't go along, I'll say, 'Mr. Chairman, we can have a unanimous report, but I reserve the right to bring this up in full committee. I feel duty bound to make a play for it, and see if I can't sell it to the other members.' But if I don't say anything, or don't reserve this right, and then I bring it up in full committee, they'll say, 'Who are you trying to embarrass? You're a member of the team aren't you?' That's not the way to get along."


He went into detail on the way the postal construction figure was arrived at for this year--Post Office asked for eighty-eight million--Chairman J. Vaughan Gary (D-VA) says, "I think they ought to be cut to fifty million"--Steed: "Wait, Mr. Chairman, that's about as low as it can go," i.e., eighty-eight million--Gary: Well, what do you think it should be? We ought to give them a token cut at least. How about seventy-five million?" (After eighty-eight million above, insert, quoting Steed to me, "We haggle about it, and other members express their opinions")--Steed turns to the staff man, who says that the Post Office expects cuts on other items, but not on this one, that they say eighty-eight million is as low as they can go, and that they are certain to appeal any cut to the Senate--Gary says, "Okay, let's leave the cut (to seventy-five million), and it will give us something to bargain with the Senate with; maybe we can hold places where we think it had to be cut."


"There are some old war horses on the Committee--some pretty dull witted guys. They plug and plug and plug. And they get more than the smart fellow, because they're there all the time working at it."


"In a legislative committee, you don't have to be there, all the time. You have fourteen witnesses, and you go to hear the one you care about. But you can't do that with Appropriations. You miss one day and you miss a whole agency."


Regarding informal contact with executive branch: "Maybe we'll be on a plane going somewhere, and I'll be visiting with the assistant secretary, and he'll say, 'I've got a problem that bothers me.' We'll talk about it and maybe come up with a plan." Regarding informal contact in general: "That's how you become an advocate of an agency's position."


He is strong on the value of outside trips--junkets.


He says that the agencies don't hide anything from the Committee. "Once we go on the floor, we are the advocates of the agency's position before the House. They don't want to hide any information from us." This may be a bit naive, since they may withhold information that may hurt the agency. Anyhow, what he says may well be true of Treasury, where there doubtless is a close rapport. But is it equally true of more controversial and more partisan areas where such rapport does not exist?