Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Power Game, Part Two

"Certainly there is nothing new in politicians shying away from clear programs and promises.  Platitudes and hokum have long been the stuff of stump politicians... Campaigns that stress mood, imagery, symbolism, and personality deflect and drown out serious discourse.  Their emptiness breeds voter cynicism..." Hedrick Smith, The Power Game, 1988


Newly elected (and junior) Congressional Democrats in the early 1970s took their jobs seriously.  Many had been elected by voters wanting real reform in the nation's capital.  The problem in getting things done, it seemed, lay in the structure of government-- at least when it came to the legislative branch.  Any proposed law had to make its way out of a committee responsible for its subject matter.  Bills to increase or decrease farm subsidies went through an agriculture committee, funding to build a new veterans' hospital in Iowa or repair one in Montana took shape in the veteran's affairs committee... 

The most powerful permanent committee (or "standing" committee) in the House of Representatives was Ways and Means.  It had jurisdiction over laws dealing with taxes, social security, Medicare, and tariffs... 

The United States Constitution provides ALL bills related to taxes must originate in the House.  As a result, any committee charged with writing laws raising revenue has tremendous power.  No Representative assigned to Ways and Means is allowed to sit on any other committee without a special waiver from Congressional leadership.  Until 1974, Ways and Means also decided who chaired the other 21 standing committees...
William McKinley, assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz
in 1901, was one of three American Presidents who served
as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee during
their stint as legislators.  The Ohio-born McKinley enlisted as a
Private in the Union Army during the Civil War.  By the time
of the Confederacy's surrender, McKinley had earned battlefield
promotions to the rank of Major.

A job serving as Chairman of Ways and Means helped pave the way to the Presidency for James Polk, Millard Fillmore, and William McKinley.  Until the late 19th Century, the position was second in power only to that of Speaker of the House... 

[Briefly a candidate for President in 1972, Wilbur Mills of Arkansas may have been the most notorious Ways and Means Chairman.  He held the post from 1957 until 1975, a good eighteen years, longer than any other man in United States history.  Mills' career exemplifies an unfortunately common theme in American politics-- a truly dedicated public servant undone by personal demons.

Congressman Wilbur Mills

Wilbur Mills' father served the town of Kensett, Arkansas, as superintendent of public schools.  Admitted to the bar in 1933, Mills studied law at Harvard under Felix Frankfurter and was elected to Congress, six years later, at roughly the same time President Franklin Roosevelt nominated Frankfurter to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court.  As a legislator, Mills vigorously supported President Lyndon Johnson's Medicare program.  This was not his first attempt to help the poor deal with the costs of health care-- as a county judge in Arkansas, Mills spearheaded a local program to pay prescription drug and hospital costs for indigent residents.  Congressman Mills remembered his roots, championing legislation to expand the Social Security safety net to farmers.  Despite this advocacy of programs that he believed promoted social stability, Mills was also a fiscal conservative who pushed for balanced national budgets.
As Chairman of House Ways and Means, Arkansas-born Wilbur
Mills never forgot his rural roots and championed legislation aimed
at expanding Social Security coverage to the American farmer.

Mills' undoing began in 1974.  At that time, he enjoyed a relationship with one Annabelle Battistella, aka Fanne Fox, aka The Argentine Firecracker.  Their private relationship became very public when a US Park Police officer pulled over a vehicle moving through the streets with its lights turned off, despite the rather late hour.  Congressman Mills was in the car and quite drunk.  The Argentine Firecracker bolted from the automobile and attempted to flee.  She jumped into the Tidal Basin pool and attempted to swim away.  This created a bit of scandal but didn't jeopardize either Mills' re-election to Congress or his position as Ways and Means Chairman.  What did cause problems was a second incident involving Ms Foxe, in which a highly inebriated Mills wandered on stage as his girlfriend stripped.]          

The Argentine Firecracker,
ecdysiast extraordinaire

Part of the Congressional Democrat's plan to make Congress more responsive to its constituents included investing more power in the 127 House of Representatives subcommittees to push laws forward,  a move that drastically limited the power of the chairmen of the 22 standing committees to block legislation...        

Inexperienced lawmakers with only one or two terms in office were now in a position to shape the nation's agenda.  Committee heads, so-called power barons with decades of seniority and experience in forging compromises with the political opposition , no longer had sole power to decide what laws would be voted on and which ones would be tabled for consideration at a later date...
President Lyndon Johnson signs the Medicare Bill
into law with former President Harry S Truman and
his wife Bess watching.  The Bill made it to the signing
table largely due to Wilbur Mills.

This newly invested power in the subcommittees also meant that political power in the House was now far more fluid than it had  been in the past.  Subcommittee chairmen had the authority to hire staff and gather information about matters under their purview.  A first or second term Congressman who chaired a subcommittee, if he or she were savvy enough to do so, could make himself or herself available to television cameras.  Information gathered by his staff would give the appearance of expertise on a complex subject.  Exposure on camera brought nationwide recognition and reassured the voters back home that they'd elected the right man or woman to represent them...

Successful use of television cameras has requirements.  Television is both a visual and auditory medium, with the visual component being the part that captures viewers' eyes and attention through a series of moving images.  The average person (and even most non-average folk) prefers to look at a pleasant picture.  For candidates using television, this translates into a concern with presenting the voting audience at home with images that are more pleasing than not.

Hedrick Smith, whose 1988 book gave this series of essays its title, saw more at work in the rise to power of junior members of Congress than just the importance of television to the new politics or the changes in the way standing committees and subcommittees did business... 
Despite his championing the passage of Medicare
and reforms to Social Security, Wilbur Mills was a
fiscal conservative.  His belief in a balanced buget
and insistence that social programs be paid for with
adequate tax revenues earned him the enmity of
some organizations championing the poor.

The role political parties played in deciding how Congressmen voted on issues was waning and the role played by lobbyists was waxing.  Special interest groups now realized the power in targeting voters in a representative's home district.  Mass (or very carefully targeted) mailings by the oil industry, for instance, that claimed a particular bill would endanger hundreds of jobs in a district could generate hundreds or thousands of letters and phone calls to a Congressman from constituents urging him to "do the right thing and vote against" the bill...

Political Action Committees (PACs) became another way for corporate interests to guarantee a friendly ear in Washington.  In 1974, according to Smith, there were 89 PACs working to influence elections.  Ten years later, the number had increased to 1,682...

The Tidal Basin in Washington, DC, scene of the Argentine
Firecracker's infamous attempt to outswim the police
Donating to a campaign committee in exchange for votes is, of course, illegal and PACs were and are careful not to cross lines that result in criminal convictions and jail time.  But, as a matter of practicality, there is almost no reason to resort to outright bribery.  A candidate who receives from PACs 30% or 50% or 75% of the money needed to pay for his bid for re-election is unlikely to do anything to endanger future campaign funding...

Lobbyists and PACs gradually usurped a role once played by political parties.  In days gone by, the United States was a less mobile society.  A person born in the Louisiana hamlet of Marksville or the Atlantic coast metropolis of Baltimore was more likely than not to live out his days there.  Americans are a restless lot and many did leave their hometowns in search of opportunity... gold rushes in California and Alaska promised riches and burned farmland in Georgia after the Civil War made the notion of being a rancher in the West more attractive.  Transcontinental railroads, and later automobiles, made it easier for the young and ambitious to simply leave town...

But, for the most part, farm kids stayed on the farm and city kids stayed in the city.  A town like New York had distinct neighborhoods... Italian immigrants here, Jews there, Irish over yonder.  Such localized populations fostered the power of political parties, particularly those appealing to ethnic interests and concerns.  Once a neighborhood found the right man-- one who found jobs on the public payroll for that cousin of yours or "fixed" problems with the police when your son had a little too much to drink and cracked some loudmouth bum's skull with the nearest beer bottle-- that neighborhood tended to re-elect the right man...
Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, born in Vienna and raised
in New York City, taught Constitutional Law to Wilbur Mills when
the future Congressman studied at Harvard Law School.  Frankfurter
played a key role in founding the American Civil Liberties Union.

Re-election meant increased seniority in the party organization.  And seniority led to experience in crafting legislation, forging coalitions with other elected officials and compromising with political opponents on occasion to ensure they returned the favor on occasion when they became Committee Chairman.  This last was crucial.  Politicians from the Old School recognized the existence of cycles in the popular mood.  Decade long stints as representatives of the dominant party give way to equally long terms as members of the minority party.  It benefitted both incumbents and the voters back home to know when a small compromise with the opposition reaped long-term benefits...

It was a system that worked for decades.  Key to its success was delivering votes and ensuring party loyalty at the precinct (or ward) level, the lowest and most basic level of organization in local politics.  The party, Democratic or Republican, guaranteed any disgruntled voter would find a sympathetic and attentive ear in the precinct captain who usually managed to find at least a partial solution to the problem...
The White County, Arkansas, Courthouse where Judge Wilbur
Mills began a local old-age medical and financial assistance
program for indigent country residents.

Positive qualities like working to help the individual voter sometimes entailed the use of negative methods such as bribery.  The best known political machine of the old system was probably New York City's Tammany Hall.  An organization dating to the late 1780s, it played a key role in Aaron Burr's rivalry with Alexander Hamilton in the early days of the Republic and delivered the New York State electoral votes that put Tom Jefferson in the White House...

By the 1870s, Tammany Hall had become synonymous with political corruption.  Its "Grand Sachem" aka William M Tweed aka "Boss Tweed" attracted the satirical and contempt-filled eye of cartoonist Thomas Nast.  Under the notorious Tweed, however, New York had prospered... the city was beginning to expand into the Upper East and West Sides, orphanages were built, land for the Metropolitan Museum of Art had been set aside, and the Brooklyn Bridge was on its way to becoming a reality.  Thousands of immigrants had also been integrated into city life and taught the basic social rules of American culture by Boss Tweed and his cronies...
Cartoonist Thomas Nast satirized the corruption of New York's
Tammany Hall in his drawings.  Despite the graft associated with
the political ring, it arguably played an important role in both
"Americanizing" immigrants and strengthening the political party
system in the United States.

Understanding how Tweed's effective albeit highly corrupt system changed to the one advocated by the new Democrats of the early 1970s requires a bit of time travel.  Let's pretend we're the erudite Mr Peabody and set the dial on our Way Back Machine to the year 1964...

The Argentine Firecracker aka
Fanne Foxe aka Annabelle Battistella


Scandal rocks the United States Air Force training base in San Antonio.  A dozen instructors, men chosen from the service's elite, face charges of improper relationships with 31 female recruits-- with forcible rape being alleged in at least one case.  Long standing questions about the power of instructors over students and effectiveness of military efforts to protect its women from sexual assault have been raised again.

Physicists move closer to proving or disproving the so-called "God Particle"-- and an explanation for why mass exists in the universe in what one scientist describes as "a milestone in our understanding of nature." 


Artwork by Louis R Nugent now available:  For fine art prints and greeting cards, visit:

Featured this week: The World Of Tomorrow

Fine Art America now features West Texas painting, drawings, and photographs by Karen Slagle of Amarillo, Texas,  Linda Cox of Graham, Texas, Suzanne Girard Theis of Houston, Texas, Judi Bagwell of Greenwell Springs, Louisiana, Karen Boudreaux of Houston, Texas, Joe JAKE Pratt of Kerrville, Texas, David Pike of Lubbock, Texas, Ken Brown Pioneer of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, and Louis R Nugent of San Angelo, Texas at:

This week's featured artist: David Pike


Note: All photographs and other images for this essay were located through Google Images or Wikipedia, without authoritative source or ownership information except as noted: Congressman Wilbur Mills from american-business,0rg; Wilbur Mills as Public Enemy Number One from; Fanne Foxe (black and white, clothed) from; WhiteCounty, Arkansas, Courthouse from; American Farm Scenes from; Washington DC Tidal Basin from; William McKinley campaign button from


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