Oral Histories and Interviews: Fenno - John J. Rooney
Interview Notes Index
Access to this interview is subject to the deed of
gift of December 14, 1993.
Interview with Rep. John J. Rooney, Jr. (D-NY)
General remarks: Very candid and blunt--his answers were succinct and good--gives the impression of being a capable man.
Why on the committee? "It's a prestige committee"--"I'm one of those fellows who thinks that it's the most powerful committee in the House"--he said others do, too--
"If you want to learn about the whole government and how it operates, the Appropriations Committee is the best place to learn it. You don't on the other committees." Example: On Merchant Marine and Fisheries you learn about the merchant marine and fisheries," "and that's it."
Regarding subcommittee assignments: Mr. Clarence Cannon (D-MO), Chairman of Appropriations, dictates them--"he'll come to me and say, I've got a good man for that vacancy on your subcommittee. What do you think?"--and he grins, as much as to say that's final (he, not Cannon).
He was on the Interior Subcommittee and then State--the State Subcommittee was split when "the committee got too big," but then he said, "Mr. Cannon split them;" he didn't say that he requested it--this refers to the split between State, Justice on the one hand, and Commerce on the other.
How did you get on the committee? "It's simple. The New York member of the Ways and Means Committee and I were old friends. We were alumni of the same law school--Fordham Law School--he came to me and asked me if I wanted to go on Appropriations"--he asked me.
Advice to a newcomer: "Keep quiet and listen"--"When I came down here I had just finished prosecuting for murder, extortion--I sent some teamsters local people up for seven to fifteen years for extortion. I'd been picking juries, et cetera. I was full of pep, so I asked Mr. [Sam] Rayburn [D-TX, Speaker of the House] how long a congressman had to be here before he went on the floor and made a speech. He said to me that you should attend committee meetings and learn about your subject; then when you bring a bill out onto the floor you'll know more about it than anyone else, except the members of the subcommittee. Then people will listen to you. Oh, you've got your [Walter] Judds [R-MN] and your [Jacob] Javits [Senator, R-NY]. They'll talk on anything, but it doesn't mean a thing--inconsequential, nobody listens to them."
Why does the House cut? "You're grounded in it. You're close to the people, . . . it's ingrained in you from the time you get on the committee"--is there padding?--"of course, there isn't a budget that can't be cut immediately"--he told a story of the State Department--they asked for sixteen men for some economic study group--Mr. C. Douglas Dillon, Under Secretary of State, "who is new in Washington," called and said that he had six men already, and they were good, so that if he could have only eight or ten it would be fine--"it was so refreshing we gave him ten men."
Regarding floor strategy: The Navy carrier was eliminated in the defense appropriation bill--he supported one because they are built in a Navy yard in his district--"I happen to be one of those who thinks we should have the carrier. We won't make a fight of it because we know they'll put it in on the Senate side. We won't make a fight which we might lose"--the idea here is that if they fight for it and lose, it remains on the record that the House voted against it, and this might tip the scales against it in conference committee--or even perhaps in the Senate.
Will he fight just as hard for an item in conference if it was put in over his objections on the floor? Answer: "Yes, once the House makes a decision, if I've opposed it, it's behind me, and if it gets around that I didn't support the House action, it would be grounds for removing me from the committee."
Regarding Clarence Cannon (D-MO), Chairman of Appropriations, and John Taber (R-NY), the ranking minority member, at markup: "They never miss one"--"and if you get extravagant, you've got two pretty sharp boys riding on your neck."
Regarding subcommittee markup: He says that he and his clerk usually have a figure, and if there's no controversy they go through--if there's argument--"sometimes there are different ideas"--then they kick it around and compromise; "I've worked on the subcommittee with some pretty sharp people, and we always like to have what we call a round book--they do it at the race tracks, and we do it here"--this means they "give a little, take a little," and compromise and go to the committee unanimously. His subcommittee usually does this.
Regarding partisanship: "Well that naturally enters in, but the surprising thing is how little there actually is."
Regarding the power of the chairman: "The chairman is in the same boat as the chairman of a subcommittee. If he can handle people and plays his cards right, he can have a lot of power, but if he can't carry the committee with him he'll lose it."
Why success and failure? Good presentation, know what they're doing, reputation, good administration and management--
Regarding Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover: "He brings in only three men . . . and when you ask him a question they don't say we'll find out, we'll get it for you tomorrow; they have the answer right there"--he also stressed reputation--when people come in here and put in unauthorized personnel, "then they're in trouble--that's chicanery"--the U.S. Information Agency and State do it.
How do you find soft spots? You begin by seeing what they had last year--that's where you begin--and you look at personnel, he stressed, and you see what was authorized and you see what they're looking for this year, and whether they have added any unauthorized personnel.
Regarding the attitudes of other members: They think Appropriations is too powerful--"they remember the one they didn't get. You get a lot of requests to help members, you help them out, and they come to you the next year with an impossible project, and if you don't get it they never forget. It's like the old story, what have you done for me, lately?"
Do your constituents understand? "That's a hard question to answer. When I talk to them about it they seem to be intrigued by it. They certainly do get the feeling that you're in the swim of things."
He blasted the Budget Bureau. They put a ceiling on the budget and did "untold harm that way--they don't have to justify their actions at all and Congress does--this was his big pitch--"We don't think much of it over here"--he thinks James E. Webb and Joseph M. Dodge were good, but the rest have been poor, "We, by we I mean the people I talk things over with, think that the rest of them (Budget Directors) have been more interested in fiscal practices than cutting a budget"--the rest means after Dodge.
Regarding the Senate: He called it "the upper body" and mentioned a story--"they'll put anything in over there."
Regarding conference committees: He pointed out that bargaining runs through the appropriations process "ab initio--the House will put things in the bill in order to trade in conference--station WRUL in Boston is impractical but some Senators want it, so they knock it out in the House, and trade for it in conference--
Regarding the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, Commerce Department: Every year the House cut out four branch offices (Reno, Albuquerque, Denver, and ?)--this saved sixty-five thousand dollars--Senator Patrick A. McCarran (D-NV, 1933-1954) wanted them in--he was Rooney's opposite number--"every year I sold him those offices for many millions of dollars."
Where does he get the material to use in subcommittee hearings? "The clerk sits right there beside me passing me questions. I'd be lost without Jay Howe [subcommittee staff assistant]. We've worked together for so many years that he can just write three or four words on a piece of paper, and I know what he means. From those three or four words I can develop a half hour's work of questions--He also gets information from employees in the departments, from anonymous letters, and from investigations--he says he always gets the results of investigations.
Regarding communication with bureau people: "All the time--they want to show us something, or they're having trouble with the budget. We've appropriated money for some purpose, and they want to shift it . . . it's an unwritten rule that when Congress is not in session, the subcommittee will stand behind anything the chairman does--with the consent of the ranking minority member"--once in a while, when something serious comes up, "we poll the subcommittee," but not usually.
His final statement on what you need in order to understand the appropriations process: "It's all a group of people--on the subcommittee and the committee and the way they get along together."