Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - John Taber
Access to this interview is subject to the deed of gift of December 14, 1993.
Interview with Rep. John Taber (R-NY)
June 6, 1959
General remarks: Slow, frank--less able to generalize over time as well as I had hoped--gave me two chunks of time--
Is decision-making guesswork? "To a certain extent. If it's a program that's been going for a while, you can come pretty close. If it's a new program then you just have to make the best educated guess you can."
If you feel very strongly about something in conference, what do you do? "You just insist. I have lots of times. I guess they hate to see me coming." "I generally take a figure just a little above what the House voted. I find that's pretty good practice." (He smiled.)
He spoke of his fifteen years of business experience, going around and getting businesses out of trouble--as if it helped him in conference--but probably he meant his remarks to have a wider application, and he was rambling a bit.
The ranking minority member on the committee always reserves all points of order when the bill goes out of full committee to the floor--"I don't know why it is, but it's been done for a generation."
Regarding subcommittee selection: "I'd rather put a man on a subcommittee where he doesn't have any special interest. If a man has a navy yard in his district, I wouldn't put him on military construction. I'd rather not put a farmer on the agriculture committee." I asked him why, and he said a person could see things "more clearly" where his own interests weren't immediately involved--"more clearly" means, obviously, cut more.
Regarding personnel of committee: "We've got some men who stay on the committee when they no longer have the physical capability. The trouble is these men are the ones near the top. That's what worries me. These men can't carry any more of a burden than they are now, and some of them can't do the job they already have." And then he read off the names from Ben F. Jensen (R-IA) to Ivor D. Fenton (R-PA)--Looking at the rest of the list, he said, "I've got the finest younger group of men I ever had." And he went down the list, saying, Gerald R. Ford (R-MI)--"as bright a fellow as you can find;" Harold C. Ostertag (R-NY)--"a good man;" ditto Charles Raper Jonas (R-NC), Frank T. Bow (R-OH), and Melvin R. Laird (R-WI)--"very good;" John R. Pillion (R-NY)--"pretty good;" Glenard P. Lipscomb (R-CA), John J. Rhodes (R-AZ)--"good;" William E. Minshall (R-OH)--"a little quick on the trigger"--a reference to his action in opposing Bomarc on the floor.
This year (anyway), he sat in with the Committee on Committees when they made their decision on new personnel.
How do you pick? "I like people who have had considerable experience on the floor. I find out about their experience--who was a DA [district attorney] or a lawyer or who served in the state legislature. And I want a fellow who is well balanced and won't go off half-cocked on things." "This year, I turned some down who didn't measure up."
Do you watch the records of young members to see who might be good? "I've always done that. I try to get out on the floor as much as I can to see what part these fellows are playing. . . . I talk to the older members of the state delegations, because they are the ones who keep closest contact with the younger men."
Advice to young men: "I've given advice to a lot of them. I tell them to get out on the floor as much as possible, and see what's going on. I tell then to attend their committee hearings faithfully."
Regarding him and Appropriations Chairman Clarence Cannon (D-MO) at subcommittee markup: "I haven't missed very many."
"We don't force them to do anything. If we see that they are doing something that is wrong, we tell them frankly, and most of the time they agree. We don't bludgeon them or anything. There are lots of ways to tell a fellow he's wrong than by using a sledgehammer." (Regarding, he and Cannon at subcommittee markup.)
"If a fellow doesn't know what's going on in his agency and can't answer questions, we know there's a hole in the skimmer somewhere."
Regarding he and Cannon: "I wouldn't say we have the same philosophy, but we have a lot in common."
Do you and Cannon agree most of the time? "Sometimes we do and sometimes we don't. I disagree with him on the agriculture bill, and we don't agree on public power projects . . . but we stood shoulder to shoulder on the defense bill this year and on most of the other bills."
We agreed that there is not much partisanship on the committee.
"Usually," the subcommittee bill goes "smiling through" the full committee--Most often, he agreed, this is true.
Appropriations bills (Ways and Means, too) come to the floor as a matter of privilege, they don't need a special rule--If they want to take it up in less than three days after it's reported out, they need a special rule or unanimous consent.
He agreed that every budget could be cut, but didn't elaborate.
He blasted "foreign relief"--"Paul Hoffman [former Administrator, Economic Cooperation Administration] is a salesman and not a business executive--he brought in a lot of WPA [Works Progress Administration] derelicts" to work.
Regarding the National Institutes of Health: "We've had an awful lot of trouble on that. It's the biggest sob-sister bill. We've had the greatest bunch of pressure, and we don't get practical results. All there is to it is the sob-sister part."
"If we don't get a balanced budget, we'll be in a whale of a fix."
Not very often a minority report--Last one he remembers was when Cannon was out to get Lewis L. Strauss (Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, 1953-1958, and Secretary of Commerce, 1958-1959)--the Republicans filed a minority report at that time against the "most scurrilous" language in the report.
He said that one good way or "sure way" to find soft spots was to see whether they had any money left over from the year before.