The Best, the Worst, and the Fair-To-Middlin’
Rating the Texas congressmen from top to bottom. But remember—you elected them.
Login / Register
ORNo Account? Register here.
A large bronze likeness of Sam Rayburn greets visitors to the House office building that bears his name. Official Washington is filled with statues of public notables, many of them accompanied by an inscription etched into a nearby wall preserving for posterity a profound statement by the honoree. But the visitor to the Rayburn Building will search the foyer in vain for the words that guided Mister Sam, the Texas congressional delegation, and the House of Representatives for the better part of two decades: “You have to go along to get along.”
Rating the Texas congressmen would have been an easy chore in those days: you would have started with Rayburn at the top and ranked the rest in descending order of seniority. There was little else to distinguish one name from the next: all were conservative Democrats (though some had a tinge of populism) and all voted pretty much alike. Mister Sam wouldn’t allow it to be otherwise: his idea of a good congressman was a team player, and the Texas delegation was his team. During the seventeen years he ruled the House—longer than any other Speaker—the Texas delegation could be counted upon to deliver a solid bloc vote for any coalition or compromise he put together. Those who had accumulated the most seniority had the most power; hence, they were the best. There was no other way to tell them apart.
Fifteen years after Rayburn’s death, the Texas delegation still operates in the shadow of his legacy. Although only seven Texans remain who served with Rayburn (an eighth, Ray Roberts, was once his aide), they and most of the rest still ‘pay lip service to solidarity and cohesion’; far more than representatives of any other large state, Texas congressmen continue to think of themselves as a unit—and equally significantly, others view them that way too.
The delegation still has more than a few go-along-get-along Democrats in the Rayburn tradition, but the old system is clearly on its last legs. Rayburn operated in an era when Texas congressional districts, like the state itself, was predominantly rural, and the delegation was composed mostly of small-town politicians, county courthouse types, whose major ambition was to get to Washington and stay forever. (It is no accident that Wright Patman, before his death on March 7, was dean of the House; the current dean is George Mahon, another Texan, and the next most senior member is Bob Poage of Waco.) They came and they stayed, collecting seniority and power, and rarely were they threatened from back home. That Texas is vanishing rapidly, and so is the monolithic congressional delegation it sent to Washington year after year. The current group (omitting Republican Ron Paul, who was elected on April 3 in Bob Casey’s Houston district, and Patman’s seat, which has not been filled) includes three Republicans, two national Democrats, and a handful of ambitious young politicians who have no intention of making a career out of moving up the seniority ladder. Texas, in short, is developing the same diversity in its congressional delegation that has long marked states like New York and Pennsylvania, whose representatives haven’t voted in a bloc since the Continental Congress.
Not everyone applauds this trend; indeed, many Texas congressmen deplore it. The veterans prided themselves on their ability to deliver a bloc vote; it made them more effective than—and in their minds, superior to—other state delegations. They fret and fume about the changing currents of Texas politics, not for ideological reasons, but because the same things are happening to Texas that they have been looking down on all these years, and they are powerless to stop it. Texas, they say, will be ineffective, and for a graduate of the Rayburn school, there can be no more ignominious fate. The younger members, not surprisingly, see things in a different’ light. They view the breakup of the delegation bloc as proof of the state’s political maturity; in any event, they say, the delegation’s “effectiveness” in the old days extended only to district and state interests, not national affairs.
It is an argument without an answer, but there can be no doubt which side is winning. The two views came into direct conflict earlier this year when Texas Democrats (Republicans are not invited to the weekly “delegation” meeting) gathered to nominate a replacement for Bob Casey (he resigned to accept an appointment to the U.S. Maritime Commission) on the powerful Appropriations Committee. Richard White of El Paso wanted the seat and, since he was the senior member interested, most members assumed he would get it. (The delegation has resolved disputes by seniority ever since Lyndon Johnson and Albert Thomas got into a bitter fight over an Appropriations seat long ago; Thomas won and the two didn’t speak for years.)
They reckoned without Charles Wilson of Lufkin, however. Wilson incensed his older colleagues by refusing to abide by their nomination of White, and their anger turned to vituperation when he went over their heads to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee—and won. Realistically, Wilson’s success could be claimed as a victory for Texas—he is much younger than White and thus has a better chance to accumulate seniority; furthermore, he is far more effective—but the older members just can’t see things that way. Unity, to them, is everything.
The delegation may be breaking up, but it remains one of the most powerful on Capitol Hill—the most powerful, most Washingtonians would agree. Even though two Texans (Bob Poage and the late Wright Patman) were stripped of their committee chairmanships in the freshman revolution of 1975, four others (George Mahon, Jack Brooks, Tiger Teague, and Ray Roberts) held on to theirs. That already gives the delegation more chairmen than any other state—and it should add one more next year (Jim Wright) and another by 1980 (Kika de la Garza). A Texan is nominal leader of House liberal Democrats (Bob Eckhardt), another is widely regarded as the outstanding House freshman (Bob Krueger), and still another is one of the few House members with a major impact on national politics (Barbara Jordan).
This diversification has at least made it possible to rank the delegation, but it doesn’t answer either of the important questions behind our decision to rate 22 different politicians: why, and howl The answer to both is the same: just as the world of commerce is based on money, the world of politics is based on reputation. It is the basic unit of political currency, the most important thing a politician—or an aide or a lobbyist, for that matter—has to offer. Everyone in the world of politics carries their own rating system in their heads, whether we set them down on paper or not, and in most cases (Jack Brooks being the notable exception) there is little difference of opinion.
Ideology has virtually nothing to do with how a politician is regarded by his peers; consequently, it played no part in our ratings. (We have, however, tried to give a sense of where members stand on the political spectrum.) Congressional politics is a 365-days-a-year world where alliances shift and today’s enemy may be tomorrow’s ally. The same congressmen who curse Charlie Wilson for breaking up the delegation will soon be begging him for an appropriation for their district. In such a pragmatic arena, it should come as no surprise that means are more important than ends, and so are qualities like effectiveness, influence, integrity, and a sense of justice.
Unlike a state legislator, who has the opportunity to shine individually in committee, in floor debate, and by sponsoring significant legislation, the average congressman seldom exercises his influence visibly. Unless he ranks high on the seniority ladder, he has little chance to write and pass bills; that glory belongs to committee chairmen. Nor can he make a name for himself in floor debate, for most of the important work on a bill takes place in highly specialized subcommittees. Most members have detailed knowledge in a few areas and rely on their colleagues for advice in the rest—and that is precisely why reputation is so important. In the age of specialization, reputation is power, because reputation translates into votes.
The truly significant difference between the Texas congressional delegation and the Legislature, however, is that as a group the congressmen are better, much better. Even the worst of the lot would rank a notch or two above the ten worst legislators, and the upper half are among the better members in the entire House. There are no buffoons, clowns, or playboys of the sort that, alas, are sometimes evident in Austin; all 22 work hard and take their job seriously. And that, of course, is the biggest difference: being a congressman is a job, a full-time, full-salaried position, while being a state legislator is not.
The rankings, therefore, reflect the coming of age of both the delegation and the new urban Texas. The sprinkling of conservatives, moderates, and liberals near the top of the list, and their stature in the House, indicates that the delegation has survived and even prospered during the transition from the Rayburn era to the present. Diversity has worked: the old guard .has neither suppressed the new generation nor been supplanted by it. Mister Sam might not recognize the delegation today, but if he were around, he’d probably go along.
- George H. Mahon, 75, conservative Democrat, Lubbock, 39th District, 21 terms.
The case for George Mahon can be put quite simply: he is one of the half-dozen most powerful men on the Hill, and he does his job, with fairness and integrity, as well as it can be done.
With the death of Wright Patman, the six-foot-two cotton farmer has become the dean of the Congress, the most senior of its 535 members. As chairman of the House’s largest committee, Appropriations, he has kept his power and effectiveness when others around him were losing theirs. At the age of seventy-five, he is, says a fellow Texas member, “at the height of his intellectual capacity. I note no decline in his ability.” He is honest, ‘straightforward, a gentleman, never, an obstructionist, reasonable, and shrewd. He is also hardworking; he is a familiar sight in the House cafeteria at lunch on Saturdays—and unlike most of the other diners, he is on his way back to work that afternoon.
Power and ability aside, Mahon is an endearing human being whose personal traits and simple tastes make him irresistible to nearly everyone. He shuns all the benefits the Pentagon showers upon favored congressmen, refusing to ride in their chauffeured limousines. In a recent TV appearance with a fellow Texas congressman, he wore an attractive suit purchased back in 1942 and now, he noted cheerily, once again in style. When he plays golf with President Ford at Washington’s exclusive Burning Tree Club, he has been seen on occasion bringing his lunch (a sandwich) in a brown paper bag.
“He has probably never said an abrasive thing to a fellow member in his life,” observes a Texas colleague, “and yet he’s not a weak man.” The word most often used to describe him is “courtly.” He writes poetry (which will never rival Milton, but brings the house down when he reads it), knows classical music, and, in his words, loves “literature and beautiful language.” A former White House aide now living in Washington recalls swimming with Mahon one afternoon in the late Sixties at the LBJ Ranch. “I quoted a line from a poem by Wordsworth, and Mahon very casually finished out not only that stanza but the next two or three. We got into a discussion about his favorite poem, and he just flopped over on his back and floated around reciting a hundred and fifty lines or so from Byron’s Don Juan. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. LBJ stared at him with incredulity.”
Needless to say, Mahon’s continued clout is based on something more astutely political than all these lovable qualities. Unlike Bob Poage and the late Wright Patman, Mahon understood early on that he had to moderate his position as chairman and acted accordingly. He says, “Nobody takes orders from anybody anymore, don’t you know?” In the past he worked quietly to keep free-spending liberals off the committee and was more autocratic than he is now; in the last year he has proven flexible enough that his continuation in the chairman’s role seems assured for at least another term. In 1974, nearly all the meetings of Mahon’s committee were closed to the public; in 1975, less than 10 per cent were. He is scrupulously fair in respecting the wishes of the House even when they diverge from his own; he is not one to employ a bag of parliamentary tricks to get his way. (Though he opposed federal aid to New York City, when it became apparent that the House favored it, Mahon shepherded it through his committee briskly.) Nor does he use his power to twist arms outside his own area of strength; for example, he strongly opposed, but carefully did not lobby against, a crippling amendment to the natural gas deregulation bill.
Often overlooked is the fact that Mahon has one of the best constituent services in the delegation. Things like soil conservation and other looking- after-the-home-folks business are taken very seriously. One important difference between Mahon and a good many other constituent-minded congressmen is that Mahon insists on playing strictly by the rules. When a patronage job comes his way, it goes to the first qualified person who applies. And when it comes to practical benefits for his West Texas district, says a Texas official who has dealt closely with Mahon, “You’d better be able to convince him that it’s not a waste of federal money.”
Mahon is very sensitive to his place in history and believes he has made a real contribution to American civilization. “For the past twenty or thirty years I’ve been the top man in defense appropriations,” he says. “I’ve been instrumental in trying to keep the country strong.” There are those, even among his admirers, who feel that he is a bit impatient with anyone who disagrees with his estimate of himself. It is too soon to judge whether Mahon’s substantive achievements have been all he thinks; indeed, some view his defense-heavy priorities as a curse rather than a blessing. But it is plain that he is a man of total integrity who cannot be influenced or pushed around. As a Texan in Washington said simply: “I trust him to do the right thing despite all the incredible pressures of that job.” There could not be a much higher tribute than that.
- Bob Eckhardt, 62, liberal Democrat, Houston, 8th District, 5 terms.
“Some members like sex,” the veteran congressman said. “Others like power. Bob Eckhardt likes to write bills.” He shook his head in amazement, as if to say he couldn’t imagine what made such people tick.
Not many people can. Unlike most of his fellow congressmen, Eckhardt has little taste or talent for electoral politics. He is as naturally shy as Tiger Teague is gregarious. But Eckhardt is every bit as much a political animal as his colleagues; he’s just a different breed. He is a master at the art of parliamentary politics, a true legislative craftsman. Bob Eckhardt belongs in Congress like no place else on earth, with the possible exception of the House of Commons.
He is one of the most recognizable figures on the Hill, whether he’s riding his battered bicycle to work or offering an amendment on the House floor, invariably wearing a bow tie and looking slightly rumpled, as though he’d fallen asleep in his suit the night before. His scholarly air and casual appearance make him the congressional embodiment of the absentminded professor, but no one underestimates his mind. “He’s one of the few congressmen who writes and understands the bills himself,” says a lobbyist from Texas. “Most congressmen listen to you politely and then send you off to work with their staffs, but when you go in to see Eckhardt, you’d better have your pencil sharpened.” Eckhardt is above all a legislative perfectionist, and in an era when congressmen are seldom active in debate unless a bill has first been before their committee, his nuts-and-bolts knowledge of legislation is a form of power. He is a tinkerer, a mechanic who loves to offer corrective amendments that eliminate lurking ambiguities or possible loopholes. Some House observers think he does it too much (“Eckhardt’s up on every bill,” says one. “You start wasting your chips when you do that”), but the fact is that Eckhardt right now is at the height of his influence, thanks in no small part to his chairmanship of the Democratic Study Group.
The DSG is an informal coalition of about 225 congressmen mostly from the liberal wing of the party; as its leader Eckhardt holds one of the most significant, if unofficial, chairmanships in Washington. Through the DSG he oversees one of the finest research staffs in the city and is in a position to influence a huge bloc of votes on every major issue. Typically, he had to be persuaded to run for the job, didn’t decide until the last minute, and didn’t twist any arms once he made up his mind; his election by a narrow margin over Michigan’s William Ford was an index of his high stature in the House.
When Eckhardt first came to the House in 1967, his liberalism made him anathema to the majority of the Texas delegation, but now it works to his advantage. When he agrees with the other Texans, he is indispensable in transmitting their views to the northern liberals who dominate the Democratic Party in the House. No one else can do that, not Jack Brooks, not Jim Wright, not even Barbara Jordan. “Eastern liberals just don’t pay any attention when Texans try to talk to them about oil,” said a lobbyist, formerly an administrative assistant, to a Texas congressman. “But when Eckhardt tells them that partial deregulation of oil prices is important for independent producers, they figure he must have something.” On the House floor Eckhardt fought (successfully) against rolling back the price of most of the oil produced in Texas and (unsuccessfully) for retaining the depletion allowance for independents; but don’t be fooled into thinking that he is just another in a long line of Texas liberals who make their peace with the oil companies. He wrote the oil-pricing section of the House energy bill, defeating Bob Krueger’s efforts to eliminate price controls, and helped lead the fight against Krueger’s amendment to deregulate natural gas. Eckhardt is just a very unusual sort of liberal, a Texas chauvinist with enough of a Tory streak in him that he would feel at home in the Mother of Parliaments.
He has, for example, a strong regard for both tradition and protocol, two values which do not rank high on the orthodox liberal scale of values. He has voted to retain the electoral college “because it works,” and in a recently published book (The Tides of Power, with Yale constitutional scholar Charles Black), he repeatedly stressed the importance of what he calls the “done thing” in American politics. This notion that there are things one does and things one does not do shows up in his fondness for protocol; before Barbara Jordan’s election, he declined to challenge the unwritten rule against bringing women to the weekly Texas delegation luncheon, even though he disapproved of it. And he obviously relishes the formal language of debate, never missing an opportunity to refer to a colleague as, say, “the worthy gentleman from Ohio.”
His admirers savor his skill on the floor, but they shudder at his slipshod treatment of the folks back home; for all his mechanical ability, Eckhardt doesn’t try to keep his political fences mended. His “quarterly” report has come out eleven times in ten years, and until recently he’s published no newsletters. “He’s not good about attending’ Rotary Club meetings,” a former Eckhardt staffer said resignedly, “but he’ll work like hell on substantive problems in the district like subsidence in Baytown.” Fortunately, his hardhat constituents seem to understand and tolerate his idiosyncrasies. He stays in office by championing union issues, and legislation like the National Open Beaches Act, national health insurance, and toxic substances control. After a generation of fighting the futile fights of Texas liberalism, through countless losing votes in the Texas Legislature and a succession of dreary state conventions, Bob Eckhardt is at last where he belongs.
- Jim Wright, 53, moderate Democrat, Fort Worth, 12th District, 11 terms.
“Ah, well, the eyebrows!” The speaker was a Washington political correspondent and the topic was Jim Wright. In every interview, the subject of the senior Fort Worth congressman’s eyebrows inevitably arises. They are spectacular, protruding like a ledge a full inch off his forehead. Eventually the Smithsonian will want a piaster cast for posterity. For Jim Wright, they are a valuable part of his theatrical image.
Wright is an unusual combination for Washington: a low-key, skillful technician, capable, when the need arises, of studied virtuoso showmanship, liberally spiced with a dash of ham. It is as though Clark Kent could step into a phone booth and emerge as Everett Dirksen.
Wright has grown far more conservative since his postwar days as the Texas Legislature’s number-one radical, but one thing has not changed: his talent as a public. speaker. A fellow Texas congressman considers him “probably the best parliamentary orator in the House. Barbara Jordan can wow ’em in a convention, but Wright does it on the floor.” Though his rhetoric can at times get flamboyant (“It’s like a milk shake that’s too sweet,” says one friendly critic), he gets away with it. Part of the suspense in a Wright address is wondering what great literary giant’s words he will invoke at the climactic moment; will it be Kipling? Aristophanes? Donne? As floor leader for the attempt to override President Ford’s veto of the jobs bill last February, Wright closed the Democrats’ presentation by reminding a hushed House of the “historic moment” and the “fateful decision” before them, and declaimed, “When the bell rings within a few minutes for our votes, ask not for whom the bell tolls . . .” The members responded with amused groans and hisses—but when Wright finished they gave him the biggest applause of the day, and his position carried by an unexpectedly lopsided vote of 319 to 98. “The best test of leadership,” says an experienced non-Texas Hill staffer, “is the reception you get when you stand up in the well and address the House. Wright is one of those members who evokes an immediate sympathetic response.”
Leadership is a word increasingly associated with Wright these days. Favored by Speaker Carl Albert and Majority Leader Tip O’Neill, he seems on the verge of moving up the House’s internal ladder from his present position as a deputy whip to, possibly, whip next year, arid majority leader in the not-too-distant future. There is even some talk of him as a likely Speaker somewhere down the line. Wright has served his apprenticeship by acting as the link between the southern bloc and the leadership; on some issues he can bring as many as 40 to 50 southerners with him. “If you have to get one southerner, get Wright,” says a New York liberal. In the past Wright’s rise through the ranks has been stymied by the fact that he had no independent power base of his own, but that will change next year when he takes over as chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee—a position he has held in all but name for the past several sessions.
Wright enjoys influence and the respect of his colleagues because he is intelligent, thorough, and workmanlike. Appointed chairman of the House Energy Task Force in late 1974, Wright managed to reconcile a variety of differing views and produce an impressive-looking report before the State of the Union address—a rare bit of congressional one-upmanship over the executive. Most members of Congress, including many that would rank high on any list of “the best,” could not have done that job that well.
Politically, Wright is moving toward more “national” Democratic positions (he supported federal aid to New York City), perhaps because he senses the possibility of a major leadership position in his future. His career ADA rating hovers around 50. He is, nevertheless, comfortably close to the Texas Democratic establishment, and on the Public Works Committee he has been both an ally of the billboard interests and the self-appointed guardian of the Highway Trust Fund—though in the latter case, interestingly enough, he has recently promoted the idea of enlarging the Fund in order to use part of it for mass transit, without diminishing the highway share.
Something of an outsider among the Texas delegation during the Fifties, Wright reached the watershed of his career in 1961, when he fell only 1.0,000 votes short of securing a spot in the runoff for LBJ’s old Senate seat. Had he made the runoff he would certainly have sent professor John Tower back to obscurity and be serving as the state’s senior senator today; the defeat disillusioned and demoralized him for years. But lately he has come to terms with his future in the House; says an old friend of many years’ standing, “Jim is serene now; he’s learned to face himself and he’s had a kind of rebirth.” Old- timers like Bob Poage have clearly pinned their hopes on him to carry on congressional leadership in some tradition that they can recognize, and younger members regard him cordially. After eleven terms, Wright is coming into his prime.
- Barbara Jordan, 40, liberal Democrat, Houston, 18th District, 2 terms.
Most Texans fail to grasp the devastating impact Barbara Jordan has had on the Washington political community. “Absolutely extraordinary,” said one veteran Hill staffer. “My God, what a woman!” said another—between them they have 35 years of Hill experience, and they are not the sort who are easily impressed. Jordan is the brightest celebrity in the Texas delegation; more people in the Capital, and probably in the country, recognize her (and have an opinion about her) than know the name of any House committee chairman. She has taken D.C. by storm.
She has that indefinable quality: presence. Part of it—the biggest part—is her stylized, cadenced oratory, which makes every line sound like an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence. She cannily reinforces it with her bearing and even her manner of dress; at a recent Democratic caucus she wore a black dress with white cuffs and a broad white collar, the effect of which, like an El Greco portrait, was to emphasize her face and hands, shadow everything else, and make her even more imposing. She greets visitors to her office as though she were seated on a throne. Even her bulk has been turned to her advantage; she is, in the words of a Texas lobbyist in the Capital, “a big black woman who looks like she might be God, if God turns out to be a black woman.”
Paradoxically, Jordan’s detractors are found mainly among blacks, women, and liberals, all of whom recognize what an asset she could be to their cause and resent her in bitter, petty ways for failing to display total solidarity with them. At the Democratic mini-convention in 1974, blacks complained that she worked too closely with conservative party chairman Bob Strauss and took her to task for daring to associate with Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Democratic whip, who had dallied with the Ku Klux Klan in his youth. Her response: “I didn’t come to Kansas City as a woman or a black. I came as a Democrat.”
No black woman could get anywhere in national politics by specializing in racial and feminist issues, and Jordan plainly wants to get somewhere in national politics. Lately^ she has been discussed as a possible future Supreme Court nominee or even a vice-presidential possibility.
The liberals, for their part, accuse her of playing up to the old baronies—the committee chairmen, the more conservative members, the power structure back home. (She was a character witness for John Connally at his trial, for example.) “They are glad to give her scraps from the table and she is glad to accept them,” says one detractor. That may have been how things were once, when she was a freshman state senator making alliances with Lieutenant Governor Preston Smith, and knee-jerk liberals were calling her “Aunt Jemima” —but no longer. She still doesn’t challenge the ruling establishment—you’d never find Barbara Jordan leading the fight to break up the oil companies, for example—but the Powers That Be are now as wary of her as she once was of them.
“She’s a very savvy politician,” says David Cohen, the executive director of Common Cause. “When it comes to basic principles, she’s never going to flinch. But when she has a chance to trade procedural things for personal advancement, she’ll do it.” Only Jordan knows where she draws the dividing line. One such “procedural” trade came in 1971, when she allowed her inner-city state senatorial district to be cannibalized during redistricting in exchange for her current impregnable congressional district. Her ADA’ rating last year was 89 per cent, higher than Bob Eckhardt’s. But, as Cohen indicates, she has mastered the old trick of voting one way on motions and the other way on final passage— when Wayne Hays made his move to stifle the Federal Election Commission, Jordan sided with him during the division vote and switched to the other side when a record vote was demanded. She also jumped back and forth during the crucial votes on natural gas deregulation, supporting the industry one time and opposing it the next. This quick-change artistry, condemned in others, is applauded in her—partly because she is so widely admired, and partly because she is one of the few people in the city with the power to destroy other politicians: imagine the impact of Barbara Jordan labeling someone a racist. That is precisely why people like Senator Lloyd Bentsen are so deferential toward her. Says a Texas political power broker who has watched Jordan since her days in the Texas Senate: “She is able to exploit in a very shrewd way people’s admiration and fear.”
How is she as a legislator? It would be hard for her accomplishments to equal her image—and they don’t. For one thing, she is a loner; and in parliamentary politics loners never achieve maximum influence. Though she seldom gets up to speak, “when she does, she’s tremendously effective,” says a fellow Texan. She almost single-handedly applied the Voting Rights Act to Texas, over the frantic opposition of Governor Briscoe. In committee she asks searching, incisive questions, and—perhaps even more important—is a formidable adversary in the so-called mark-up sessions, where legislation is actually hammered out. “She cuts through all the gobbledygook,” says one observer of her role in the recent shaping of key sections in the omnibus antitrust bill. Her power has its obvious side (she is on the Steering and Policy Committee and will be a keynote speaker at the Democratic Convention this summer) and its subtle side (she is one of the few people who, on a moment’s notice, can get the Speaker to attend a party, and when she takes a seat—always alone—in the House chamber, others come to her).
Although she can be very sociable (she sometimes plays the guitar and sings), she is ordinarily a very private person who carries over her formal manner into her personal dealings with other members. Even Charlie Wilson, her best friend in the delegation, has not been given her unlisted home telephone number. She tends to be aloof, sometimes snappish and abrupt, pompous and autocratic; it is her worst fault.
Two comments, one from a lobbyist and the other from a Texas newspaperwoman, define Barbara Jordan in the spring of 1976 as well as anything can.
Says one: “She evokes even in prejudiced white minds a feeling that no other black in national politics does. They don’t see her as a black or as a woman.” Says the other: “She can make you so proud.” Her legislative performance is ultimately irrelevant; she transcends it by charisma.
- J. J. (Jake) Pickle, 62, moderate Democrat, Austin, 10th District, 7 terms.
To some, Jake Pickle may seem a surprising choice to rank among the best. His name alone has led some people to prejudge him as a buffoon, and he is fervently deplored by the orthodox old Yarborough wing of Texas liberal Democrats, who cannot forgive his friendliness with the Texas business establishment. But Pickle arguably ranks alongside Jim Wright as the best across-the-board member of the delegation. He scores high in several categories, though he is not at the very top in any. And while he goes out of his way to minimize his concern for matters outside his district (“I do not have national interests,” he protests emphatically), his accomplishments belie his words. Pickle’s reputation is paradoxically higher in Washington than among many voters back home.
Says a Texas political professional who now works in Washington: “When I came here I just assumed he belonged on the furniture list, but he doesn’t: He’s hardworking and he votes independently.” That view is echoed by an Eastern liberal staffer, whose introduction to Pickle came when he heard the mirth on the House floor that greeted the formal announcement of his election in 1963. He considers Pickle “very impressive” in subcommittee work, an “extremely conscientious, careful investigator.” As a member of the Commerce Committee, Pickle did outstanding investigatory work on the 1972 Russian wheat deal boxcar shortage and the Dita Beard ITT scandal. He was one of the foremost challengers of Richard Nixon’s unconstitutional impoundments of congressionally appropriated funds, and he has been a dogged critic of what he considers violations of civil liberties by the Internal Revenue Service.
Last year Pickle left the Commerce Committee to accept a seat on Ways and Means. He was reluctant to make the switch, and, as things turned out, he would have become chairman of Commerce’s investigative subcommittee this year. The effect of Pickle’s move was to deny the Ways and Means seat to Bob Eckhardt, who wanted it badly but was anathema to the oil and gas industry. (The Eckhardt-Pickle rivalry goes back to college days, when Pickle trounced Eckhardt for University of Texas student body president.) Close friends say he was “talked into” blocking Eckhardt, not by the industry, but by fellow members of the Texas delegation who view the state’s interests and the companies’ interests as one and the same. The fact that Pickle yielded to their wishes underscores one of his basic characteristics: he is very much a “team player” of the sort Sam Rayburn tried to create. More than any other member of the Texas delegation, he worries about the increasing fragmentation of the state’s former monolithic front on the Hill.
His strengths are different from those of a superstar like Jordan or a craftsman like Eckhardt. He is a quintessential politician—a reconciler of different interests in the LBJ tradition. He is not a particularly deep thinker, but he is naturally gregarious, kind, and generous, one of the best-known and best-liked men in Congress.*
*Last March 2, for example, patrons of the House restaurant found the following note card beside their menus:
Wick Fowler’s Two Alarm
Courtesy of Congressman J. J. (Jake) Pickle
In celebration of Texas Independence Day
At the same time, he remains instinctively a suspicious, skeptical man—a trait his critics interpret as crass political calculation, but which enables him to be a first-rate investigator; he takes nobody’s word for anything. Perhaps his greatest strength is a splendid staff—along with Alan Steelman’s, the best in the delegation—which excels not only in constituent casework but also legislative research. The staff has enabled Pickle to become something of a rarity: a congressman who is well informed on issues outside his usual field of committee involvement.
At his best, Pickle is political poetry, a joy to watch. Though he is in no sense a deceitful man, he does not let abstract principles get in the way of his instinct for political survival. He has been, variously, a moderate liberal (in the LBJ years), a moderate conservative (in the early Nixon years), and more recently, increasingly progressive (since more than 20,000 18-to-21-year-old UT students got the vote). The district itself, now the state’s largest in population, would be a difficult assignment for anyone; it is a strange amalgam of German burghers, rice farmers, and Austin liberals. (“If they like it in Brenham, they hate it in Austin,” sighed one Pickle staffer.) Perhaps the most important thing that can be said about Pickle is that he has proven a worthy legatee of Lyndon Johnson’s old seat.
- Alan W. Steelman, 34, Republican, Dallas, 5th District, 2 terms.
During a mere two terms in the House, Alan Steelman has won the respect and admiration of his colleagues in both parties. For someone who belongs to a minority within a minority—Steelman is part of the Republican moderate wing—that represents a considerable personal achievement.
A conscientious, intelligent man whose parents were labor organizers in Arkansas, he belongs to that relatively rare breed of Capitol Hill politician who actually reads the bills and thinks about the issues, wrestling with his fundamentalist-Baptist conscience even when there is a politically easy, inconspicuous escape route available. He is honest enough to file complete, voluntary financial disclosures, despite the embarrassing fact that they have shown a negative net worth for the past three years (a result of heavy campaign debts that outweighed his personal assets). And he takes his job more seriously than most; in the opinion of a state official who knows all the Texas congressmen well, “Steelman is probably the hardest-working member of the delegation, maybe in the entire Congress—in at sunrise, out late at night.”
Steelman has shown a high degree of courage in his legislative work, involving himself deeply in bills which could not possibly help him in his home district; few others in Congress are quite so inclined toward self-sacrifice on behalf of important but unpopular causes. He has been the chief sponsor of significant bills on financial disclosure and freedom of information that House leaders have kept firmly bottled up in committee, and he joined with Arizona Democrat Mo Udall in leading the fight for a land-use bill which was detested by influential chamber of commerce leaders, who avalanched Steelman with critical letters. That skillful but ultimately unsuccessful effort (the bill was defeated .23-19 in committee) was widely admired in Washington. His plucky opposition to the Trinity River canal flies in the face of the Dallas Establishment. On many other issues, especially fiscal ones, Steelman is predictably conservative. (One observer calls him “an economic royalist.”) With an ADA rating last year of only 26, he is plainly not, as some Texas Republicans would like to believe, a liberal Democrat who entered the wrong party primary by mistake.
He also runs an exceptionally efficient office filled with talented people; Marvin Collins, his administrative assistant (and a former campaign manager for George Bush) is considered one of the ablest staffers on the Hill in either party.
As a Republican with meager seniority, the traditional paths of influence are closed to Steelman. As a maverick, he is ignored by the leadership of both parties. And as a congressman from a marginal east Dallas district, he has no assurance that he can afford to wait years for his turn. The futility of this position has not been lost on Steelman, who feels frustrated by the gap between his considerable reputation and his minuscule power to affect the ways of the House—so frustrated, in fact, that he decided this year to challenge incumbent Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen rather than seek re-election. Perhaps his experience helps explain why people like Steelman are so rare in the House: eventually they tire of fighting battles that shouldn’t be hopeless, but are; they either leave or stop fighting.
It is sad, because Steelman will leave behind a very special kind of influence—one that is not institutional, but direct and personal, a result of his ability to work with members of both parties on a professional basis uncomplicated by partisan jockeying. Consequently, he has an underground following both in the Washington press corps and among knowledgeable people on the Hill. Says one Texas correspondent whose enthusiasm differs in degree but not in substance from this admiring view: “Alan Steelman has real class. Of all the people I’ve met covering Congress, I have the highest opinion of him.”
- Charles Wilson, 42, liberal and conservative Democrat, Lufkin, 2nd District, 2 terms.
Charlie Wilson is everywhere. More than any other member of the Texas delegation, he seems to have mastered the fine art of political ubiquity. Scenario: the natural gas deregulation debate on the floor of the House. There’s Wilson, moving from one member to the next, folding and unfolding his lanky frame in and out of chairs, forever in search of just one more vote. Scenario: Jake Pickle’s office, where administrative assistant Michael Keeling is sequestered with two visitors. Suddenly there’s Wilson, one entire building and three floors removed from his own office, bursting unannounced through the doorway with the entry line, “Anybody heard the latest Aggie joke?” Scenario: the natural gas debate again. What? No Wilson? Ah, there he is, up in the press gallery, lecturing a reporter. In fact, just about the only place you’re not likely to find Charlie Wilson is at whatever committee hearing he’s supposed to be attending right then. Last year Wilson set a record of sorts by missing all 28 sessions of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Wilson’s presence is as pervasive politically as it is physically. Both in Texas and on Capitol Hill he has great lines of communication and influence with Democrats of all shades; he has an inexplicable ability to cause liberals and conservatives each to view him as one of their own. He gets along with business and labor, developers and environmentalists, blacks and rednecks—and, judging by his tremendous popularity in his East Texas district, the teetotalers too, though that particular feat must tax even Wilson’s persuasive powers. Along with Jordan, Gonzalez, and to a lesser extent Eckhardt, he is one of the few Texas congressmen with a statewide following, particularly among independent oilmen, for whom he saved the depletion allowance, and Jews, who appreciate his ardent support of Israel. These extraterritorial constituents look on Charlie Wilson as their congressman; not coincidentally, many of them are wealthy people who would be generous about opening their checkbooks in the event Wilson decides to challenge Senator John Tower in 1978.
The fact that Wilson is, in the somewhat snide words of another Texas congressman, “such a hale fellow well met,” plus his casual attitude about committee work and his blithe indifference to legislative craftsmanship, have caused more than one Washington observer to underrate him. Says one who doesn’t: “He’s a damn genius at the political side of being a legislator. He knows how to go after an objective. It’s probably true what they used to say of him when he was in the Legislature—that he’d never read a bill in his life. Instead he says, ‘You get it in shape and I’ll do the rest.’ He has LBJ’s sense of knowing exactly how to appeal to people.” A lobbyist who has worked with Wilson puts it succinctly: “Charlie’s not interested in substance; he’s interested in power.”
This finely tuned sense of political reality makes him one of the best strategists in the House. He managed to take congressional antagonism toward the petroleum industry and turn it to his own advantage by convincing his colleagues that friendly little independent producers should be treated differently than the big bad major oil companies. He was so successful that he doesn’t even have to lead the fight for the independents any more; northern liberals do his work for him. The nationwide coalition of gas consumers he and Bob Krueger put together to lobby for deregulation was a work of art, even though the bill failed by four votes. Not unexpectedly, Wilson’s fondness for Real-politik is reflected in his hawkish positions oh military spending and foreign affairs. The Naval Academy graduate is a strong backer of the Pentagon, and he gives short shrift to any suggestion that morality has any place in foreign policy. “A nation doesn’t have friends, it only has interests,” he says, making the single exception of Israel.
One place Wilson doesn’t have many admirers is the Texas delegation, particularly its senior members, who haven’t forgiven him for usurping what they regard as Richard White’s rightful claim to a vacant seat on the Appropriations Committee. They see all of his faults and none of his virtues; one administrative assistant cursed violently at the mere mention of his name, while another, whose judgment on such matters is ordinarily astute, called him “the laziest man in town,” which he plainly is not. Wilson cheerfully confesses to his flaws, though he does point out that some of his absences from Veterans’ Affairs were caused by a back problem (more to add a footnote for the record books than to make an excuse); he adds that unlike most congressmen he has chosen to be active outside his committee responsibilities—particularly in oil and gas. Still, despite his shortcomings, the fact remains that when Wilson sets his mind to something, he is as good as anyone. If he just did it more often, he would have to rate among the best.
All that may change now that he is on Appropriations. When Wilson missed his first subcommittee meeting, he received a polite phone call from chairman George Mahon, who explained that many Texans show up to testify at such hearings, and wouldn’t it be a shame if the new member from their home state wasn’t there? Wilson got the message. Next time he brought along a photographer, presumably to document his presence for his constituents, for Mahon, and for posterity.
- Olin E. (Tiger) Teague, 66, conservative Democrat, College Station, 6th District, 16 terms.
Tiger Teague may be the best-liked man in Congress. Gruffly personable, a good ol’ boy, a laugher-beamer-joker, he is enormously popular with his colleagues. Sometimes a man’s influence stops there; politics is full of backslappers who don’t amount to much. But in Teague’s case, his innate likeability has brought him power and influence even in situations where a straight-line southern conservative (which he is) might not ordinarily be welcome.
The Democratic Caucus, whose leftward tilt reflects national party realities, is a case in point: Teague, in a real surprise, unseated reigning caucus chairman Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois labor-liberal, in 1971, largely on the basis of his personal popularity. He served through a tense and difficult four years with good-humored fairness and emerged with his reputation enhanced. “Tiger,” says a fellow Lone Star State congressman, “was raised in that Texas tradition where everyone is running for Miss Watermelon Thump and trying to be the most popular person imaginable.”
Despite his conservative voting record (1975 ADA rating of 5 per cent), Teague is not doctrinaire, and no one would ever expect to find him leading an ideological crusade. He has a minimal legislative program—even though, as one Hill observer noted, “The House has such faith in him, he could probably pass just about anything he wants.” His forte is committee work, which he has performed with such distinction that his chairmanship was never imperiled by the upheavals that toppled Patman, Poage, and others. As chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee from 1954 to 1974, he managed to hold back the more extravagant demands of the well-organized veterans’ lobby and keep the committee running with spit-and-polish efficiency that was the envy of the Hill.
Last year he switched to the chairmanship of Science and Technology, a committee he had unofficially directed for the past fifteen years, showing decided sympathy for NASA and the demands of contractors. He now oversees National Science Foundation grants, and it is no accident that these funds flow generously into the coffers of Texas colleges and universities—particularly Texas A&M, situated in the heart of Teague’s district. Already Teague has demonstrated that he still runs a committee better than anyone else in the House: he has worked wonders with the Science and Technology staff; manipulated seniority to elevate Washington’s Mike McCormack, a respected if somewhat uncritical pro-nuclear scientist, to a subcommittee chairmanship; and still found time to call shots on the Veterans’ Committee. (“Every single time I’ve been in Teague’s office this year,” says a Capitol reporter for a major Texas daily, “he’s been interrupted by some sort of veterans’ question.”)
Nevertheless, Teague is no longer the force he once was. He has recovered from a 1975 stroke that forced him to ride an electric wheelchair to the House floor, and he impresses visitors as astonishingly hale and hearty, but there is no doubt that his health, never good, has suffered. His admirers have begun to wonder how long he can stand the pace he forces on himself. “In the past year he’s been working himself to death—I mean that literally,” says one. Three years ago, Tiger Teague would have belonged in any list of the top five Texas congressmen. He still belongs in the top ten.
- Robert C. Krueger, 40, conservative Democrat, New Braunfels, 21st District, 1 term.
Not one but ten copies of The Poems of Sir John Davies occupied the middle shelf of the bookcase, in Bob Krueger’s office. At an appropriate moment Krueger bounced from his chair, plucked one from the shelf, and handed it to a visitor. The name of the publisher (the prestigious Oxford University Press) was prominently displayed in dark blue type on a light blue jacket, and so were the words “edited by Robert C. Krueger.” “This is the series to be in,” the former English professor explained. The visitor sneaked a look at the price inside the cover and paled. It was $32. Krueger reached out, reclaimed the volume, turned it over. “Look,” he said, pointing to the titles of other books in the same series. “Here’s the standard work on Keats . . . this one is the finest work on Dryden.”
Bob Krueger is very proud of himself, that much is clear, and not just because he has kept up his academic credentials during his first term in Congress. In what is the most precocious freshman class to enter the House in a long, long time, Krueger is the Rookie of the Year, the new member who has gotten the most attention and had the most impact. No one else is even close. He’s the only freshman within memory to floor-manage major legislation (natural gas deregulation; “So Close, So Far,” TM, April 1976), and in little over a year he has become the most effective spokesman for the oil and gas industry in the entire House. Krueger can scarcely contain his delight in his own achievements; his pride keeps spilling out like dough rising in a pan, and it is almost a physical act for him to stuff it back inside.
The biggest factor behind his success is his style in debate. Krueger skillfully inserts literary references into his rhetoric; and his colleagues hang on every word, not wanting to let something from Shakespeare slip by. Obviously this little game works to Krueger’s advantage, and he plays it well. When he opened debate on the natural gas bill by saying, “I wish simply to deliver ‘a round unvarnished tale,’ ” members on both sides of the aisle nudged neighbors and nodded sagely; you could just see them saying to each other, “Aha! I bet that’s one.” (It was: Othello, Act I, Scene III.*) His colleagues eat it up; the fact that someone with a doctorate from Oxford can treat them as intellectual equals adds to their already considerable sense of self-importance. Krueger, for his part, is careful to remain erudite but not snobbish. He never forgets that he is still a freshman; his remarks are laced with deference toward his elders and respect for the traditions of the House. The net effect is that instead of resenting him, as they do some of the more vocal freshmen, his colleague’s are actually grateful to him for elevating the tone of debate and paying lip service to the old ways.
An equally important part of Krueger’s style is his posture as a rational man. He was considered a liberal when he resigned from the Duke University administration to run for the seat vacated by 0. C. Fisher, but he ran as a conservative—hardly surprising, since the vast district that stretches from northwest San Antonio to the Davis Mountains is one of the most conservative in the state. Liberals typically cannot forgive what they regard as his “defection,” and some conservatives continue to regard him as a Closet Liberal, but the truth is that Krueger is among the least ideological members of the delegation. (“I never want to be typed,” he says. “Once you get categorized you lose your effectiveness.”) Whatever the original motivation, the change in his thinking now seems, genuine, the natural result of leaving academia for politics and finding out that economic and social issues are far more complex than they seem at first glance—in other words, the result of experience rather than expedience. What he retains from his years on campus is a belief in the value of free and open discussion; he sees his role in Congress as that of an educator. “I enjoy differences of ideas with others,” Krueger says. “It should be an intellectual contest, not a battle of personalities.” In this regard he stands in direct contrast to disillusioned senior congressmen like Bob Poage, who have no faith whatsoever in the persuasive force’ of logic.
Krueger’s reputation may have reached its zenith early in the first week of February, when he won a crucial test vote on natural gas deregulation by a substantial margin and was featured in a half-minute spot on the CBS Evening News. But two days later he lost the big vote, and in the aftermath of defeat his reactions raised some serious questions about his political future. A lobbyist who was intimately involved in planning the strategy behind the deregulation battle describes Krueger as “extremely bitter” about the causes for his narrow setback: Republican absenteeism, bad advice from cohorts at the crucial moment, and a Washington Post article detailing his massive (and evidently solicited) campaign contributions from oil and gas interests. His reaction is entirely understandable, and yet one cannot imagine a seasoned politician like, say, Jack Brooks or Charlie Wilson suffering the same agonies of defeat. Krueger hasn’t yet learned to detach himself emotionally from his battles, and for all his skill in figuring out how the House works; he may not have grasped how politics works. Literate, rational Bob Krueger still must face the question of whether the political cynics of the world are right after all.
*If any congressman bothered to look up the source, he doubtless appreciated how appropriate the entire passage was: “…little of this great world can I speak, More than pertains to feats of broil and battle: And therefore little shall I grace my cause in speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience, I will a round unvarnished tale deliver…”
- W. R. (Bill) Archer, 48, Republican, Houston, 7th District, 3 terms.
Houston’s Bill Archer has three things going for him—legislative ability, personal honesty, and an amazing grin that lets him look fifteen years younger whenever he wants.
Archer does his best work on the Ways and Means Committee, where he is one of the more energetic members on the Republican side. Says one regular observer of Ways and Means: “Archer reads the bills, and he knows precisely what’s in them that will affect his constituency, and he knows how to change it or get it out. He’s terribly knowledgeable and effective for his point of view.” Says another: “He’s a bulldog; he studies his stuff. Archer is the only Republican on Ways and Means who understands the whole Social Security mess.” Everybody knows Archer is, in one staffer’s words, “the point man” for the oil industry on Ways and Means, and he has been observed leaving his seat at the committee table to confer with oil lobbyists in the back of the room. He is universally rated a more articulate spokesman for their views than fellow conservative Omar Burleson, who outranks him on the committee.
Archer accomplishes as much as he does by dint of thorough study, hard work, and good staff help. “He is smart rather than intelligent” is the evaluation of those who know and work with him. Though he is not particularly fast on his feet, he is skilled at parliamentary devices and adept at questioning witnesses. His voting record reflects the upper-class conservatism of his River Oaks Memorial district that is the bailiwick of Republican boss woman Nancy Palm—a region that gave the Texas Legislature (if not the world) the likes of Mad Dog Mengden, Sonny Jones, Bill Blythe, and Larry Vick. Yet Archer himself more nearly resembles his predecessor, the respected George Bush, than the assortment of political exotics who amuse Austin.
Archer’s integrity is unquestioned. A Texas reporter on Capitol Hill who pays close attention to the financial interests of congressmen calls Archer “one of the most personally honest guys I’ve ever covered in politics.” His attitude toward campaign contributions and personal financial disclosure goes far beyond minimum legal requirements. He will not accept contributions from organized groups nor will he take cash from anyone. His annual disclosure statements are finely detailed.
Archer’s main weakness is his occasional intolerance toward others who stray from what he considers ideological purity. “He can get very vituperative toward somebody who doesn’t agree with him on an issue,” complains a top Republican staffer. Once, when a staff member delivered a memorandum from New York’s Ed Koch, Archer flew into a rage, calling the liberal Democrat from Manhattan’s silk-stocking district “Ho Chi Koch.” Ways and Means observers who otherwise give Archer very high marks lament that he drifts off from time to time into “simplistic demagoguery” that often undermines the convincing, well-thought-out presentations he has made earlier. “He starts out fine, but the more he talks, the worse it gets,” sighed an admirer. Not surprisingly, Archer’s influence is largely confined to Republicans; Texas Democrats considered him “useless” during the recent oil and gas fights. He is one of a small group of congressmen who can be described as effective but not particularly influential—unless, that is, the Republicans should suddenly find themselves in the majority.
- Jack Brooks, 53, liberal Democrat, Beaumont, 9th District, 12 terms.
Taped to the bookshelf near the window is a crayon sketch of a supine Snoopy: “Happiness is Falling Asleep.” By Jeb. Beside it is a page of multicolored butterflies. By Kate. Give the slightest encouragement to the man behind the desk, and he’ll show you a table full of family photos. Can this old softie really be, as some have said, “the meanest man in Congress?”
People either love Jack Brooks or they hate him. No one is neutral. There is little dispute about him politically—he is a fervent Democratic Party loyalist, dependably pro-labor, and a master at dipping into the pork barrel—but virtually no agreement about him personally. Consider this collage: “He’s definitely in the top five,” says one national correspondent. “He’s tough and methodical. He holds people’s feet to the fire. He doesn’t really care if he’s liked—sort of the antithesis of Tiger Teague.” Says a Texas liberal who knows the delegation well: “He abuses people. He’d rather make a foe than a friend. He likes to think he’s outspoken, but in fact he’s just rude.” “He has great ability,” says another Texan. “He saved millions of dollars with the Brooks Act [coordinating the federal government’s use of computers]. He does play hard, but he has great integrity.” Says a Texas newsman: “A weasel. Hated by many, feared by all. He is one of the most blindly partisan people I’ve ever known, and he completely dissipates his influence.” Says an experienced non-Texas Hill staffer, now a lobbyist: “He’s the House embodiment of LBJ, an extremely skillful legislator—not in the drafting sense, but in the leadership sense. He has both power and influence: he knows the rules, knows how to maneuver, knows how to get things done. He’s well thought of.”
Says a Texas congressman: “He’s very strange. He’s shrewd and adroit, but unsubtle; he makes people mad when he need not do it. He’s more feared than anything else. He has power but not influence.” Says a prominent Texas lawyer-lobbyist: “He’s smart, profane, candid, and cunning. I’ve known him for years, but when I go into his office, it’s like I’ve walked into a buzz saw. Before I can sit down, he’s hit me with two or three savage things about me or the clients I represent. He’s too acerbic for his own good. But then, most of the interesting men in Congress are.” Says a journalist for a major daily newspaper: “He’s easily the most vengeful man on the Texas delegation. I perceive him as a crook.”
Well, you get the idea.
This much is clear: Brooks has immense power. He is chairman of the Government Operations Committee (which has authority to investigate the efficiency and economy of all federal agencies, as well as offering unlimited opportunities for pork barreling); chairman of the Joint Committee on Congressional Operations (which has instituted numerous internal reforms in Congress and is considering others, like allowing television coverage of debates); and—perhaps most important of all—the ranking Democrat (after chairman Peter Rodino) on the Judiciary Committee. When the new wave of post-Watergate freshmen arrived last year, more requested a seat on Government Operations than any other committee. In the past year the committee has issued no fewer than fifteen investigative reports.
It is equally clear that over the years Brooks has become increasingly caustic and irreverent. He would rather use an axe than a scalpel any day. He is not looked to for leadership as he was, say, fifteen years ago, because his ferocious partisanship has caused too many people to doubt that he will fairly respect their views. History will credit him with ferreting out the proof that Nixon dolled up his San Clemente mansion with public funds, but on the televised Watergate hearings his unconcealed loathing for the man struck many viewers as embarrassingly biased at the wrong time. He’ has marauded against revenue sharing for years; even his friends suspect that his fervor comes less from any philosophical scruples than from the fact that revenue sharing is an idea put forward by The Enemy: Republicans. Brooks is so skilled at playing the tough-guy role, and he has come to revel in it so much, that the man and the role have become inseparable. Once it was a good act—a sort of East Texas Don Rickies routine—but he seems not to have noticed that it now does him more harm than good.
Brooks knew acute poverty as a child, selling newspapers on Beaumont street corners. Now he is wealthy; he will not say exactly how wealthy. That fact raises suspicions. “He’s a self-made man,” says a Texas staffer sarcastically. “He made it all in banks while he was in Congress.” Says a congressional colleague: “He hates bigness and he hates wealth—except his own.” The one-time paperboy is now chairman of the board of two banks and a stockholder in three others.
He is notoriously tight-fisted with his staff and drives them hard. His salaries are among the lowest in the House. “I don’t pay them a lot unless they stay with me,” he explains, but this logic creates a vicious circle, with heavy turnover because of low salaries and low salaries because of heavy turnover. But he gets results, especially for his district (though his popularity in some areas, like Beaumont, is not overwhelming).
What is Brooks’ explanation for his heavy-handed style? “Candor is the only way to survive,” he says, and there can be no doubt that he has survived very well indeed. By reason of his ability and his power, he is certainly one of the better Texas members. His adversaries underestimate him at their peril, as the television networks may soon find out. Brooks wants House debates televised as a historical document, but he gives short shrift to the proposal that the networks be given legal rights to their videotapes; it will, he says, “be a cold day in you-know-where before that happens.”
- Jack Hightower, 49, conservative Democrat, Vernon, 13th District, 1 term.
When the large activist freshman class of the 94th Congress is mentioned, Jack Hightower’s name does not immediately leap to mind. Of the 75 first-year Democrats, he is something of an anomaly—the most conservative of an outspokenly liberal group, one of the most careful and quiet of a largely shoot-from-the-lip crowd; in other words, what would have been before 1975 a traditional freshman. He is not even the most prominent newcomer from Texas, that accolade going to Bob Krueger for his work on energy. The natural expectation, therefore, is that Hightower would be just another anonymous small fish in a big pond. But the natural expectation would be wrong. Almost everyone on the Hill knows about Jack Hightower. In his first term, he has come to symbolize a figure straight out of the solid and upright nineteenth-century tradition: an American Gothic congressman.
“Jack Hightower came to learn, not to teach,” says an administrative assistant to a conservative Texas congressman, gratified that the world could still produce such people. Says a liberal congressman who doesn’t care much for Hightower’s voting record: “I guess one reason I like Jack so much, is that there are so damn few really decent people like that up here.” (That’s the word used most often to describe Hightower—“decent.”) A correspondent for a major Texas daily adds, “He still believes in the old myths and denies that they are myths.” And no wonder: Hightower himself is one of the myths—the congressman who votes his conscience, represents his district by organic instinct, but is capable of rising above parochial considerations when national interests are at stake. If that weren’t enough, he lives a Spartan existence in a one-room efficiency apartment, sleeps on a couch that unfolds into a bed, washes his own socks, and drives an old car to work.
The same qualities that made him an influential state senator for ten years—scrupulous honesty and an appetite for hard work—have served him well in Washington, but these alone do not explain the high regard in which he’s held. In a town overpopulated by small people with large egos, it is a relief to find one for whom the reverse is true. “I was never one of those people who just liked being Senator,” Hightower once said of his days in the Legislature, and he has brought that same unassuming attitude to Washington. True, he doesn’t sound any different from 434 other representatives who talk piously of public service; the difference is that when Hightower says something like, “I don’t think this seat belongs to me and I don’t expect to be here forever,” he really means it—and his colleagues know it.
Despite the fact that he sometimes seems to view the world through the eyes of a Sunday School teacher (which he is), Hightower is no pushover in the rough-and-tumble arena of congressional politics. He invoked alphabetical seniority to grab a seat on the Agriculture Committee that Bob Krueger coveted, and, in the words of a senior Washington correspondent, “has made no political mistakes”—though he did raise a few eyebrows by hiring a former Braniff executive as a $35,000-a-year administrative assistant. His voting record is predictably conservative (ADA rating 11, the lowest among 75 freshman Democrats), especially on issues like sexual integration of public school and college PE classes and reducing the strength of the armed forces, but on some issues he has proven himself a Democrat in more than name. He has, for example, voted to override President Ford’s vetoes seven out of ten times.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Hightower, though, is that he comes from the 13th Congressional District of Texas—an area regarded disdainfully in Washington as one of the most know-nothing constituencies in the entire country. It is a district whose conservatism differs not only in degree but also in kind from the rest of the state. It has more Republicans, and far more John Birch sentiment, than any other rural district in Texas. Hightower (who grew up in the middle of the district, married a girl from one end, and lives in the other) shares its concern for basic, fundamental values without embracing the more extreme positions that have earned the 13th its reputation as a political ostrich. If that district keeps electing people, like Hightower and State Senator Max Sherman, the rest of the world is going to have to rethink its opinions.
- Henry B. Gonzalez, 60, liberal Democrat, San Antonio, 20th District, 8 terms.
Every politician likes to think of himself as unique, but Henry B. Gonzalez (the last name is sometimes omitted but never the middle initial) may be one of the few who is. There is no one in the House quite like him: after all, how many other congressmen deign to feud with their hometown mayors, plunge’ into local politics like an ex officio member of the city council, and campaign for reforms in the city public utility board? If a high, school civics textbook tried to diagram the various layers of government which rule over the people of San Antonio, a separate level would need to be reserved for Henry B. Gonzalez.
An exuberant, scrappy, intelligent, ornery loner, Gonzalez has chosen to view most of his congressional job through the prism of local politics. Though he insists that he gets involved in local issues only when they “impinge on my ability to serve” constituents, he interprets this guideline liberally, to say the least. Asked casually whether he had a position on the Edwards Aquifer, Gonzalez exclaimed, “Why absolutely!” and proceeded to expound for ten minutes in his emphatic, meandering style before concluding, “I can’t be a congressman of much if my city doesn’t have a reliable source of water!” Similar reasoning underlies his deep involvement in San Antonio’s natural gas crisis—though only minuscule traces of federal jurisdiction can be found in either issue.
Gonzalez’ intimate involvement in local affairs keeps him a force to be reckoned with in San Antonio. The one-time pariah of the local establishment has become so sacrosanct that San Antonio reporters in Washington who have written even mildly critical stories about him were subsequently reprimanded by their editors. He is a folk hero to his constituents: he leads parades, attends festivals; in the right place, he is a legend in his own time.
And yet, outside his bailiwick and occasionally even in it, the feeling persists that he has never quite lived up to the promise exhibited by the fiery, state senator who filibustered against the segregationist bloc in the 1957 Legislature. Inevitably, as Gonzalez grew into an institution in the eyes of his old enemies, some friends began to look at him with increasing doubts. Radical Chicano groups like La Raza Unida have little use for him (and vice versa). He has made certain that no other aspiring Mexican-American politicians (former State Senator Joe Bernal and Bexar County Commissioner Albert Pena come to mind) build a base strong enough to pose a threat to him. In Congress he has grown unabashedly comfortable with the seniority system: he was furious at Charlie Wilson for daring to challenge Richard White’s claim to a seat on the Appropriations Committee. Then too, Gonzalez has a distinct mean streak; once you get on his enemies list you never get off—“and that,” explains one Washington observer, “includes anyone who’s ever had a cross word to say about him.”
Still, in his chosen role as a legislative advocate for the people of his district, Gonzalez has no peer. On constituent services he is incomparable. Says a high-ranking Texas official with Washington experience: “If I had a problem with the federal government, I’d want to live in Henry B’s district.” His staff is geared to help the home folks, and they do their job expertly. He publishes long and informative newsletters every week.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that while Gonzalez is personally liked, he is not regarded as a legislative leader. He is best known for inserting lengthy remarks into the Congressional Record—more than any other Texan—which he regards as a convenient platform for his continuing vendettas against the likes of Coastal States Gas, the Sharpstown investigators, the Warren Commission, and other targets of his bounteous indignation. (Some see his advocacy as heroic, others as “a running sore in the Congressional Record.”) His best congressional work has come on the Banking Committee, where he is admired for his expertise as chairman of its subcommittee on International Development Institutions and Finance; such are the vagaries of seniority that a congressman from a poor, inner-city district with 71 per cent blacks and Chicanos can become a respected authority on a subject as arcane as international finance.
- John Young, 59, moderate Democrat, Corpus Christi, 14th District, 10 terms.
With his omnipresent dark glasses, his bow tie, and a profile that seems to resemble Little Abner’s Senator Phogbound a bit more every day, John Young is among the House’s most unmistakable sights. The fact that he nevertheless remains one of its more obscure members says something about the role he has carved out for himself.
Asked for some comments on Young, a veteran administrative assistant to one of the House’s most prominent non-Texas congressmen at first denied any such person existed. Advised that Corpus Christi had been sending someone by that name to Washington since 1956, the staffer shook his head, flipped through a pictorial directory of members, and stopped short with surprise. “Yeah,” he conceded. “I’ve seen him around. But I don’t know him from nuthin!” Except for aficionados of the Rules Committee, on which Young sits, few Washingtonians do. Because Rules is a small (sixteen members) committee that controls the dispatching of legislation to the floor, its members are automatically “powerful”—though much less so than in the past, when Rules was an empire unfettered by democratic reforms. But they are often little known—partly because they sit on no other committee, and partly because they have consigned themselves to a daily routine that is seldom glamorous, often tediously procedural. Young is neither the most nor the least powerful member of this special group—“a good soldier of the House,” as one Texan put it. He is blunt, friendly, mentally sharp, and moderately influential, having played a key role recently in both the fight to keep secret the House CIA report and the parliamentary maneuvering that got natural gas deregulation to the floor. He is also tenacious: “He can be a real obstructionist to gain his point [in committee],” says one lobbyist. “He will do anything to get his way.”
He can be no less tigerish in his dealings with the federal bureaucracy; John Young is not a man to take “no” for ‘•an answer. More than any other Texas congressman (except perhaps Henry B. Gonzalez), he is obsessively concerned with sorting out the myriad problems his constituents have with governmental agencies—to the exclusion, unfortunately, of almost everything else except his duties on Rules. His staff is the smallest of any Texan’s. Of the 12,000-plus bills pending this year, not one of them is his own. He points out, correctly, that legislation can be passed in other ways—like his amendment ordering the Corps of Engineers to remove logs from the Guadalupe River, which he persuaded the Public Works Committee to tack onto another bill. And Rules itself offers ample opportunity to “legislate” by blocking bills: take federal land-use planning, for example—something Young opposes vigorously. “We’ve been able to hold that up for a long time in committee,” he says with a touch of pride. Though congressional junkets have fallen into all-too-justifiable disrepute lately, the fact remains that congressmen are frequently called upon to cast informed votes on delicate foreign policy questions; it is characteristic of Young’s inward-looking stance that he has left the United States only twice (to Panama and Hong Kong) in twenty years of public life.
Young reserves his folksy manner for constituents and occasionally for colleagues; he seldom socializes at Washington parties, preferring instead to spend time with his children. If he steps up, as expected, to the chairmanship of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy next year, he may find himself better known about town; but after twenty years his basic role seems well established: he is a “service” congressman at home, and an institutional mechanic on the Hill.
- Omar Burleson, 70, conservative Democrat, Anson, 17th District, 15 terms.
Seated at his desk in the Rayburn Building, flanked by smartly furled Texas and U.S. flags, Omar Burleson could on first meeting be mistaken for your conventional-model Capitol Hill mossback—which so many Texans seem to think he is. His monotonously conservative voting record (the ADA has not rated him higher than zero since 1968, when he got 8) and his quiet manner (he is the least active of the three Texans on the Ways and Means Committee and seldom says anything on the House floor) have led casual Congress watchers to underestimate him. By selecting and skillfully playing a very special kind of role, Burleson has actually become one of the more fascinating members in the entire House.
The key to Burleson is the way he has handled the realization that he is out of phase with the national wing of the Democratic Party. He arrived after the War as something of a liberal (his first ADA rating: 67), but the country, and the party, kept moving to the left at a speed that Burleson wouldn’t keep up with. Instead of marching into strident—and futile—opposition, he has simply withdrawn from the fray, maintained a conservative voting record, and refrained from trying to convert anyone else or force his views on them. He wants neither to obstruct nor be tainted by the party majority and thus has actively avoided leadership ‘ and power when they came his way. Eight years ago he relinquished his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee for a seat on Ways and Means, which gave him, in the words of a long-time Texas staffer on the Hill, “a place to keep his head below the parapets. You can get lost there pretty easily.” As chairman of Administration, he had performed his housekeeping chores quietly; his successor, Wayne Hays of Ohio, has turned the committee into a formidable base of personal power from which he tyrannizes the House. That technique has appalled Burleson, says one close observer, because he “has no sense of how to wield power or to be feared.” The switch to Ways and Means also cost him his seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee; had he remained there, he would have been in line for its chairmanship next year.
Does he regret that loss? No, he says, because the committee “took on some facets I didn’t like.” Specifically, it had begun to spend more and more time on foreign aid, which is not exactly popular out in Anson and Abilene. Rather than serve in a chairmanship that forced him to oppose the prevailing Democratic Party views, Burleson obviously preferred to sidestep the conflict. One former State Department official, who has watched Burleson’s technique for cooperating with the national party while retaining a conservative image, recalls: “On international issues where Burleson—who’s not a stupid man—knew the facts supported a position that was unpopular in his district, he absented himself to make sure that he didn’t have to cast the deciding vote for a crippling amendment, and then reappeared to vote nay—in the minority, of course—on final passage.”
His legislative program is practically nonexistent, although he is currently pushing a bill to reform federal estate tax laws. His office is among the quietest in the delegation. It is run almost single-handedly by Judy Curtis, who serves as administrative assistant, legislative assistant, press secretary, personal secretary, and receptionist—a remarkable performance, but also an indicator of how little really goes on in Burleson’s operation. He even writes his own newsletters.
Burleson’s relations with his district are so good that he has not had an opponent since 1966, the longest “free ride” of any member of Congress. His popularity at home is due, as much as anything else, to his old-fashioned charm and his personal contact with constituents. His well-tailored Washington wardrobe—he looks a bit like a debonair Will Rogers—is traded for cowboy attire back home, and he has perfected the knack of moving comfortably between each of his worlds. “Burleson is one of the most suave, sophisticated old boys Texas has ever sent to Congress,” says a liberal Texan who has known him for fifteen years. He will never rank among the ten best members from Texas, but he is playing an intriguing game.
- W. R. (Bob) Poage, 76, conservative Democrat, Waco, 11th District, 20 terms.
Asked to name the toughest vote of his career—the hardest decision he’d had to make—Bob Poage let his mind wander back to issues long forgotten, then replied: “It was probably the first vote I ever cast—to grant aid to the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. I went along with Maury Maverick on that one. But I don’t think I’d do it today; that turned out to be a communist-financed organization.”
If you knew nothing else about Bob Poage, that statement would tell you all ‘but one of the most important things to know about him. It would tell you that he was in Congress before most Americans were born (next to George Mahon, he has been there longer than any other current member). It would tell you that he came as a New Deal liberal and became, in the course of twenty consecutive terms, a staunch conservative. What it would not tell you is that he made his reputation in agriculture, a field that saw both his rise (as chairman of the Agriculture Committee for eight years) and his fall (as the first chairman to be deposed by the emergent Democratic Caucus in 1975, for procedural abuses of power). In his heyday (which is to say, until quite recently), Poage was a dominant force in shaping U.S. farm policy, the one person in the country most responsible for the growth of corporate farming and the intricate system of farm subsidies. Poage continues to participate actively in the work of his former committee and tries to leave the impression he still runs it. His respected successor, Tom Foley of Washington, has been gentle and deferential with him; Poage is allowed to exceed his allotted time for questions and to exercise a chairman’s traditional prerogative to invite witnesses and open the question period.
But the truth is that with the loss of his chairmanship, Poage is in a sad limbo, cushioned only by widespread admiration for the dignity and grace with which he accepted his humiliating defeat. Though many agribusiness magnates would agree with the Texas congressman who called Poage “one of the great men of our time,” the fact is that Poage’s time has come and gone. His district has paid him the compliment of allowing him to seek another term with only negligible opposition, but there are few in the House who expect Bob Poage to be back after 1978.
His detailed knowledge of everything from African soil conditions north of the Limpopo to the ownership of arroyos in Cottle County has made him something of an institution among Texans in Washington and earned him the nickname (used affectionately, and even in his presence) of “The Bureau of Useless Information.” At a February speech to the Texas Breakfast Club his audience was treated to a rambling but clearheaded presentation of Texas history which made 1836 seem like only yesterday and along the way revealed Poage’s striking familiarity with the nuances of Australian land law.
More than any other senior member of the Texas delegation, Poage remains unreconciled to the new political currents on the Hill. As chairman of Agriculture he was primarily interested in commodities and producers—not in the family farmer and certainly not in the new social, consumer, and nutrition issues that loom so large in the agricultural policy debates of the Seventies. Yet Poage views his greatest personal accomplishments as “bringing an improved standard of living to rural people,” most of it through New Deal legislation bearing the signatures of Roosevelt or Truman, like the first REA telephone program.
He has little patience with new procedural reforms that prevent chairmen from doing as they please. “I didn’t call on anybody who wasn’t there on time,” he says. “Now these darn fellows come in way late and monopolize the discussion.” Sitting in his office with a spectacular view of the Capitol outside his window, he reminisces wistfully about the Rayburn and Johnson years, when “the emphasis was on getting results instead of on the way you got things done.” Now, he says contemptuously, “We’ve got that ‘sunshine rule’; we’ve got to have all our meetings open to the public. [Poage’s committee was infamous for holding its meetings behind closed doors.] You can’t get things done that way. Legislation is compromise, and you can’t get compromise in the public arena. You just sit there and wrangle.” When he smiles, Poage speaks through clenched teeth, a mannerism that gives him the appearance of being even more disillusioned than he really is. He shakes his head and sums up the accumulated judgment of 40 years: “It’s very natural for a new member to come here and think he can convince people. You don’t convince people here.”
- Abraham (Chick) Kazen, Jr., 57, moderate Democrat, Laredo, 23rd District, 5 terms.
It would be heartwarming to report that Chick Kazen is a dynamic, hotshot congressman, brimming over with influence in the House of Representatives. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened to Kazen.
“You never hear a damn thing about him,” says a Texan who covers Capitol Hill. “He is,” says a veteran staffer, “one of the great anonymities, who survives by being obscure.” The House, because of its size, provides good opportunities for someone to settle into a comfortable, quiet existence, undisturbed by the furor going on around him. Kazen, who developed a courageous name for himself during twelve years in the state Senate, seems to have coasted after his promotion to Congress.
Like Jack Hightower, he is an authentically unpretentious person; he speaks of his old Senate colleagues without an iota of condescension or distance, as though it has never crossed his mind to feel a bit superior to those he left behind in Austin. He is dependable, steady, extremely stable, and easy to deal with. “Chick is the warmest of people,” says a fellow Texas congressman. “He would do anything for you personally; he would never cut down or judge one of his colleagues. He’s a kind man, and he wants people to like him.”
Kazen comes from an old, respected Lebanese political family in the state’s most machine-dominated city. Laredo’s Tory Democratic machine, the Independent Club, sent him to Washington in 1966 and guarantees that his seat will be a safe one for the foreseeable future. (His two 1974 opponents combined won only 29 per cent of the vote.) To protect his seat in redistricting, the Texas Legislature produced a peculiar district that turned and twisted all the way to Goliad in the east and Lockhart (30 miles from Austin) in the north, and took a large bite out of San Antonio’s South Side. The Legislature will have to go through even more contortions to save Kazen’s seat in 1981.
All things considered, Kazen’s district is probably among the least-demanding constituencies in the state, leaving him a good bit more time on his hands than congressmen from more politically active districts enjoy. His weekly newspaper column deals with a few issues in sober, unrhetorical fashion; like Kazen himself, it is neither shrill nor incisive. He sends no newsletters (or, as he prefers to call them, “mass mailings”) to his constituents in that hodgepodge of a district: “When you represent Beeville, Uvalde, and San Antonio,” he says, “it is very difficult to initiate conversations on topics of common interest.”
His legislative interests are scant, although he is currently taking an active role in the Interior Committee’s work on San Antonio’s proposed Mission Parkway, and he won considerable admiration last year for his self-effacing efforts to work out a compromise on the Big Thicket Park in East Texas. “Most congressmen have primary interests, something they specialize in,” said a Washington lobbyist from Texas. “Kazen doesn’t seem to have anything.”
Basically he is just a friendly guy. One place you can be pretty sure of finding Kazen is at any of the Capital’s receptions and social, affairs that have a Texas slant. When George Bush was sworn in recently as head of the CIA, the formalities were preceded by a private morning coffee reception at the agency’s Virginia headquarters. The only Texas representative who came was Kazen. He is active in the Texas State Society, and when Texas groups—schoolteachers, manufacturers, you name it—come to Washington, he is always there, gregarious and happy. He is, in short, a nice person having a nice time; but you don’t have to be in Congress to do that.
- Richard C. White, 53, moderate Democrat, El Paso, 16th District, 6 terms.
Nobody takes much pleasure in ranking Dick White among the worst Texas congressmen, but almost everyone puts him there. It is an unkind fate for a man who is widely acknowledged to be earnest, fair, hardworking, and quite genuinely concerned about his constituents. But the unhappy truth is that he simply doesn’t cut much ice in Washington.
“He’s not a major force in anything,” says a leading Congress watcher and lobbyist. “Being around as long as he has and not making an impact can hurt you.” That view is widely echoed on the Hill. White has kept a low profile on his two committees (Armed Services and Post Office). He seldom says much on the floor; at best he gets up with compromise amendments that usually fail. Most of his efforts have been directed toward constituent services, and he maintains two full-time offices in his sprawling district, one in El Paso and the other in Odessa.
In contrast to the typical El Paso political figure, White is uptight and unsure of himself. Asked to list his legislative accomplishments, he fretted about appearing to favor one group of constituents over another, referred nervously to a set of note cards on his desk, and at one point apologized for an apparent ambiguity with the remark, “It’s been a while since I looked this thing over.” The three things on which he eventually settled reflect his limited legislative perspective: the Chamizal Treaty with Mexico, the Guadalupe National Park, and the fact that “I helped build West Texas.” To those must be added his care and feeding of Fort Bliss, through his seat on Armed Services. All of these are things to be proud of, and. yet the fact remains that not one of them has great impact outside the 16th Congressional District of Texas. White is the prototype of what Lyndon Johnson used to call, disparagingly, a “post office congressman”—one who is preoccupied with patronage appointments and answering his mail.
White is polite, exceptionally gentle (the adjective most often applied to him on the Hill is “sweet”),”and almost painfully sincere. How many other members of Congress would bring a visiting reporter into his office and ask, “Do you want me to sit here?”—pointing to his sofa—“or shall I sit here?”—pointing to his desk? In the abstract, White’s instincts are admirable; but Congress can be a very pushy place, and his behavior is unfortunately viewed by his more predatory colleagues as a sign of weakness or ineffectuality. Dick White is the sort of man who never gets to the front of the crowd at the soft drink stand during halftime.
Precisely that sort of thing happened to him earlier this year, when, despite his seniority and the endorsement of the Texas delegation, he was pushed aside for a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee by his macho fellow Texan Charles Wilson. Though Wilson’s more liberal voting record gave him an edge with the Democratic Caucus’ Steering and Policy Committee, the real reason he won was that he knew how to politick and White didn’t. A Texas staffer who watched White get clobbered recalls, “Charlie had his list in his pocket; he twisted arms on the floor. White was just no match for him. He’s so timid and shy, really. Other members of the delegation tried to help, but you have to be able to do that sort of thing yourself.”
Understandably, the experience hurt White personally and politically. His resentment shows, for example, in his refusal to refer to Wilson by name, calling him instead “this man.” He has plenty of explanations for his defeat—Wilson’s liberalism, the Texas delegation’s tardiness (“I couldn’t move honorably until they said, ‘You’re it,’ and they said that too late”)—and he tries to pass his defeat off as inconsequential (“LBJ tried for the Appropriations Committee too, and lost. I don’t think it made him ‘ineffective’”). But the truth is, Dick White is a good man who is in the wrong ball game, a rough and sometimes cruel game that he is not temperamentally suited to play. That may be a harsher criticism of the game than of him, but it is the way things are.
- Eligio (Kika) de la Garza, 48, conservative Democrat, Mission, 15th District, 6 terms.
The South Texas seat occupied by Kika de la Garza has been in the same hands since 1948. The hands belong to his administrative assistant, Cecelia Hare Martin—a formidable, authoritarian woman who arrived on the Hill 28 years ago to work for then-Congress man Lloyd Bentsen and has stayed ever since. Because de la Garza seldom acts without her, she is very likely the most powerful Texas staffer in the House.
Some say that is all there is to know about de la Garza: that he is an errand boy, the willing instrument of the Anglo business interests of the Rio Grande Valley, including agribusiness groups like the Farm Bureau; that he regularly opposes legislation that would benefit his overwhelmingly (75 per cent) Mexican-American constituency; and that he has little interest in public affairs. Muses a Washington correspondent: “With some of these fellows, you’re afraid you’re just missing something—but with de la Garza you look and look and never see it. As far as I can tell, he just chases Social Security checks.” A conservative Texan on the Hill says, “If ever there was a special-interest man up here, he’s it. The Valley businessmen treat him well and he treats them well.”
No member of the Texas delegation has a voting record so far removed from the interests of his district as a whole. Liberals and radical Chicano groups detest him with an antipathy bordering on the irrational. His record is far more balanced than they would have you believe—he supported the Voting Rights Act, for example—but it does reflect a dismal pattern of opposition to social programs which would help ease the poverty of his constituents: against a child nutrition program, against an agency for consumer protection, against supplying food stamps to households of striking workers, and for crippling amendments to a bill providing legal services to the poor.
De la Garza considers himself strictly a service congressman, unconcerned with national issues or internal leadership in Congress. “I leave that to those who want to be president,” he says. Yet he has been slowly ascending the power scale and in March, rose another notch when he moved up to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee after the death of Wright Patman. As chairman of the subcommittee on Agriculture Department Operations, Investigations, and Oversight, he has been in a position to call bureaucrats on the carpet for everything from the Russian wheat deal to milk price support scandals to food stamp maladministration to the farm policies of the department’s controversial Secretary Earl Butz. Since de la Garza enjoys raking bureaucrats over the coals in his newsletters, one might expect his subcommittee to be among the most exciting in Congress; instead it has been one of the quietest. Faced with increasing criticism for his inaction, however, de la Garza, opened hearings this year on federal policies concerning human nutrition research. His performance is being watched closely by his fellow Democrats, because the odds are good that Garza will find himself in line to become chairman of the entire Agriculture Committee within the next four years; current chairman Tom Foley of Washington has his eye on a Senate seat, and the only other person ahead of de la Garza is deposed chairman Bob Poage.
De la Garza has a reputation for being dumb. He isn’t. He is an engaging, clever man who can use self-deprecating wit to win a crowd in Brownsville, Washington, or—most surprisingly—at the Democrats’ Kansas City Mini-Convention. And he is hurt by the frequent accusations that he doesn’t represent his people. He sees the radical Chicano movement as divisive, polarizing the political system into haves and have-nots. Seated at his desk in the Longworth Building, he cites the programs he has supported: OEO, education, food stamps, migrant health care, grants to improve rural water supplies in his district, and so on. “No matter what I tell them I have done for the poor, they won’t believe it,” he says of his critics. He goes on: “You shouldn’t ask, ‘What have you done for the poor?’ You get a man a good job. He gets a home and a car, and then he progresses to a bigger house and a bigger car. That is the American way.” He clenches his fist and pounds it softly on the desk. “Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.” He truly wants to believe there is no difference between the rich and the poor, wants to believe that any Mexican-American in the Valley can succeed in the Anglo’s world by trying hard. Is he himself not proof?
De la Garza is not just an errand boy; he is two things at once: a peon to some, and a patron to others. He points to the collection of trinkets, mementos, and carvings on the bookshelves behind his desk, and he talks about his constituents. “They send me little medals of the Virgin,” he says. “They send me things they’ve made with their hands.” He holds up a tray of tiny artificial roses sent him by school children in the Valley; the roses have been painstakingly molded out of bread, colored, and allowed to dry. “I’ll challenge anyone who sees that to say I don’t care.”
On the way out, de la Garza escorts the visitor out to the hall, explaining each honorary plaque along the walls. Plainly he believes they affirm his constituents’ affection for him, and his for them. Almost as an afterthought, he points to the frayed segments of red carpet that are laid end-to-end along the entrance hall leading to his reception room. “Look,” he says. “The government was going to throw this away, but we found out about it and we got it.” He steps out into the somber brown Longworth corridor. “These other congressmen”—he motions to his left and to his right along the corridor—“they don’t have a carpet like this for their constituents.”
Kika de la Garza is a proud man. He does care. But he is an anachronism, a reminder that the feudal world still lives in Valley politics.
- James M. Collins, 60, Republican, Dallas, 3rd District, 5 terms.
Jim Collins is the only member of the Texas delegation tainted by charges of corruption. His first administrative assistant, George Haag, was convicted and imprisoned for taking kickbacks from Collins’ office staff, and Collins himself has paid a $60,000 civil fine for charges (which he denied) growing out of the same affair. For a time in 1973, it appeared that Collins himself might be indicted by the Justice Department. He was not.
Those facts inevitably color Collins’ reputation on the Hill. Few believe that Collins himself, one of Congress’ wealthiest men, engineered any kickback scheme for his own personal profit, but the alternative explanations are hardly charitable to him either. The conventional view, expressed by an administrative assistant to another Texas congressman, is that Collins “is either dishonest or a very poor businessman. There are not many congressmen who let their payrolls get completely out of touch.”
Collins himself ruefully explains that he came to Congress from the helm of a laree family business (Fidelity Union Life Insurance) where he was accustomed to delegating responsibilities, as he did to Haag. A sadder and wiser man, he now personally signs every payroll voucher and interviews every new employee—a surprisingly rare procedure on the Hill.
The stigma of corruption only partially explains Collins’ unpopularity with the rest of the Texas delegation (he is the only true outcast of the group). Nor is it explained by the fact he is a Republican; both Archer and Steelman have cordial contacts with the Democratic majority. It is much more because of his doctrinaire, often strident conservatism. In a delegation characterized by pragmatic temperaments, Collins is a stubborn ideologue.
He has a quick eye for the more extreme manifestations of bureaucratic absurdity, a trait that has led him on some worthy crusades (like rescinding the requirement for automobile seat belt interlock buzzers) but also to some rank silliness (like his solemn proposal to pay each congressman $425 for every $2 billion surplus in the federal budget).
What congressmen really dread, however, are not so much Collins’ own proposals, but his support for theirs. He often ends up embarrassing the very side he is trying to help; he has an unerring ability to sink his own ship. Last year he infuriated fellow Republicans by attaching an anti-busing amendment to the Democratic energy conservation and policy bill. His idea was actually rather clever: it forbade the use of motor fuel to transport public school children to any school except the one nearest their homes. But by tacking it onto that bill, he put his party colleagues in the politically intolerable position of either voting for the energy bill they were sworn to oppose, or casting a vote against it that could be construed as “pro-busing.” This triumph of abstract logic over common sense is typical of Collins, and it helps to explain why virtually nobody in Congress pays any attention to what he thinks.
“You can be sure,” says a congressman who has observed Collins at work, “that a proposal he advances is more likely to be defeated than if advanced by anybody else.” Undoubtedly that is why members of the Texas delegation shuddered this year when Collins rose to speak in favor of natural gas deregulation. Chief strategists Bob Krueger and Charles Wilson had taken pains to dispel fears that deregulation was a laissez-faire windfall for the natural gas industry; instead they emphasized that it was necessary to stimulate explorations for new gas supplies. All their efforts were devastated when Collins confirmed northern suspicions that deregulation was not the means to an end but the end itself. “We in Texas and Louisiana are all delighted—in fact, we are proud—to be under the free market system,” Collins told his colleagues while other Texans winced at his ill-timed remarks.
In committee Collins is openly partisan and unabashedly protective of business interests like oil and banking—not subtly and skillfully, like Houston’s Bill Archer, but in an unsophisticated way, lacking class and finesse. A Texan who has observed him in the Commerce Committee compares him to a Republican version of California liberal John Moss. “He doesn’t even attempt to look intelligent or impartial,” she says. “Moss and Collins just try to beat people over the head.” Collins asks questions designed primarily to show where his sympathies lie rather than to elicit information. Says a reporter who covers the committee for a major daily newspaper: “The oil people would rather he extract explanations from them instead of trying to defend them. He’s just not smart about it—he’s not even a good spokesman for the people he’s trying to represent. Like everyone else they consider him an embarrassment.”
One of the great mysteries of Texas politics is why Dallas Republicans, who pride themselves on a level of political sophistication higher than their Houston brethren and have produced a Texas legislative delegation to prove it, continue to elect Jim Collins as their congressman. Those who know usually mumble something about Collins’ influential family background, the surprisingly weak opposition he has drawn, and the heavy advantage of incumbency, but the mystery persists. In educational level and family income, north Dallas ranks near the top of the country’s 435 congressional districts; during most of the last quarter-century it has been represented by Bruce Alger, Joe Pool, and Jim Collins. That is more than its share of lean years; even Pharaoh’s Egypt suffered through only seven.
- Ray Roberts, 63, conservative Democrat, McKinney, 4th District, 8 terms.
Ray Roberts may be the only man in Congress who sends recipes to his constituents. People have prepared entire dinners from the information supplied in the “Cook’s Corner” section of his newsletter, he notes proudly. Last fall, for example, he explained to the people of Sam Rayburn’s old congressional district how to prepare Yams in Orange Cups, a dish he considered “perfect for the holidays.”
In Washington, Roberts himself is regarded variously as a yam, a tapioca pudding, and—more frequently—as just plain furniture. Even his accession last year to a major committee chairmanship (Veterans’ Affairs) has not helped. It is not easy for a committee chairman to remain furniture, but Roberts has managed. He seldom speaks on the floor and seems content to live out a dreary, ho-hum existence amid the marble halls and graceful traditions of the institution to which he came in 1940 as an aide to the already legendary Rayburn.
He is frustrated by the new trends in the House; Roberts shares all of Bob Poage’s sense of disillusionment, but can match neither Poage’s long list of accomplishments nor his philosophical understanding of how politics really works. Instead, he grouses a lot and, in the eyes of some who see him regularly, tends to be an unhappy man. His colleagues find him “terribly excitable” and “abrasive,” but they acknowledge that he takes pains to be personally accommodating toward his fellow Texans and other southern congressmen. He is a gray man not noted for his personal brilliance. “Ray does not do anything thoroughly or well,” says a senior Washington journalist who knows the Texas delegation intimately. “He goes into things slap-dash. He writes the dumbest newsletters, and he gets by, by depending on his staff.”
He stubbornly refuses to understand the nuances of important issues. One example: the toughest vote of his career, he says, was whether to raise the national debt ceiling. This is precisely the same issue another Texas conservative described as “a Mickey Mouse vote that doesn’t make any difference.” Conservatives often use debates over raising the debt ceiling as an opportunity to chastise liberals for their free-spending habits, but almost everyone realizes that raising the ceiling only allows the federal government to pay its previous obligations—everyone, that is, except Roberts, who apparently regards raising the ceiling as an open invitation to increase future spending, which it is not.
Roberts performs reasonably well as an ombudsman in the service of his constituents, though Texans living outside his district have complained of his being flagrantly rude when they attempted to discuss legislation he disliked. As chairman of Veterans’ Affairs, he labors in the shadow of his predecessor, Tiger Teague, a fact which has made him defensive about his status and prerogatives. During a discussion in his office about a minor but controversial piece of legislation affecting VA hospital dentists, Roberts was asked how the issue had been resolved. His eyes flashed, his mouth tensed, and he said emphatically, “When I’m chairman of that committee it’s resolved, by damn, the way I want it to be.” House chairmen don’t often talk that way any longer.
As chairman of the Water Resources subcommittee of Public Works, Roberts has done his best congressional work. He is very conversant on the subject of rivers, lakes, and dams all over Texas, reeling them off by name and location. He warms to that subject with an enthusiasm that is missing from the mass of tired, negative clichés that fill his weekly radio broadcasts and newspaper columns.
Asked to name the accomplishment in his fourteen-year tenure that meant the most to him, Roberts thought a moment and said, “I think I have built more dams and reservoirs in a shorter period of time than anyone from Texas since Lyndon Johnson.” There could be no mistaking his heartfelt sincerity. One need not denigrate that accomplishment, nor Roberts’ role in it, however, to feel something a little sad at the sight of a man who spent so many years in the seat of American power, in the midst of world-shaking events, expected by his constituents to do so much for the country and them, finding the landmark of his life in those dams. Despite his opportunities, Ray Roberts has been largely irrelevant to the issues of his time. If on that July day in 1776, the Founding Fathers in Convention Assembled could have seen their heirs mailing out recipes for Yams in Orange Cups, would they have thought it was all worthwhile?
- Dale Milford, 50, conservative Democrat, Grand Prairie, 24th District, 2 terms.
People in Washington may not like the Texas delegation; they may resent it; they may envy it; but they don’t laugh at it. With one exception: they laugh at Dale Milford.
Poor Dale Milford—who has less innate ability than any other member of the delegation—got off to a bad start by arriving in Congress fresh from a stint as the weatherman on WFAA-TV in Dallas. As a result he has had to spend an inordinate amount of effort trying to convince people to take him seriously. He stresses his “nationally recognized” reputation as a consultant in aviation and his work with the American Meteorological Society. But he holds no advanced degree (nor a BA); thus, when he pipes up at hearings with comments like “We scientists think…” those of his colleagues who hold real scientific degrees from universities could just die. Ask about Milford on the Hill and the same flippant comments are repeated with dismaying regularity: “a joke,” “an idiot,” “a dope,” “if Congress needed a weatherman, Dale Milford might be the second or third choice.” Says one Texas congressman, “Everyone keeps asking whether Milford is hard of hearing or really that dumb.” Fair or not, such remarks have unfortunately impaired Milford’s reputation to the extent of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: if everyone thinks you are a joke, you are a joke.
It is hard to observe Milford without sensing that one is in the presence of a political accident. To an extraordinary degree he seems simply not to belong where he is—a nice enough person, to be sure, but completely, totally out of place at that committee table or there on the floor of the House. Collins, Roberts . . . they may not be stellar, but they are at least credible political personalities. Try as he might to blend in and act as though he belongs, there is something in Milford that stubbornly refuses to fit. He is as incongruous as an insurance agent at a Leonard Bernstein party.
There is one thing Milford knows a lot about: aviation. It has stood him in good stead during his three years in Congress. With the help of Science and Technology chairman Tiger Teague (who to the puzzlement of many has taken Milford under his wing, showering favors on him and plugging him in his own newsletter), Milford received the chairmanship of the newly formed subcommittee on Aviation and Transportation Research and Development. A certified commercial pilot, he also won a seat on the Aviation subcommittee of Public Works. Having thus concentrated his efforts, Milford is more like a middle-level federal bureaucrat than a United States congressman. Within his narrow specialty, Milford has performed energetically and well; he is not lazy, not the sort of person who sits back and does nothing. He has, for example, shown technical expertise in hearings on cockpit-tower relationships and wind tunnel research. Sadly, not many of his colleagues have paid much attention.
Partly that is Milford’s own fault. He keeps distracting them with follies like his Christmas trip (wife in tow) to study American counterintelligence activities in Indonesia. His smirking House colleagues considered Milford an implausible expert on spooks, despite his position on a special House committee studying intelligence. Because his report was, of course, confidential, the depth of his insights may never be known. The public can take solace in the knowledge that Milford has announced his intention to publish a personal report on the CIA in a future edition of the Congressional Record.
Unlike most Texas congressmen, Milford conducts his constituent services from his home office (in Grand Prairie). Ten of his eighteen employees are located there, equipped with a WATS line to call federal agencies in Washington. Milford himself flies back to work at that office from Friday through Monday, meaning that he often spends more time in Dallas than in Washington. The decision keeps him close to the voters, but at the price of diminishing still further his presence and scant influence among his House colleagues. Apart from his aviation interests, about the best that can be said for Milford is that if he were in the Texas Legislature, he would not rank among its ten worst members.