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The Boys In The Back Room

The Senate Establishment

by Joseph S. Clark. other Senators
Hill & Wang, 138 pp., $3.50 cloth

This slender book is a document of the melancholy year 1963. It memorializes the occasion when Joseph S. Clark, the exceptionally spunky Senator from Pennsylvania, finally said out loud that though democracy may reign in the Senate, a conservative oligarchy rules. His speeches over a three-day period (February 19-21) were free of pious fakery and packed with illuminating detail. Yet most of his colleagues were either annoyed or indifferent and the press tended to bury the story amid the shipping news.

That was in February. By November there was exasperated agreement that the 88th Congress was among the worst on record. A liberal President could not get the courtesy of a vote on either of his two major domestic proposals—the civil rights bill and tax-cut legislation. Nine of thirteen basic appropriation bills were lost somewhere in the labyrinth, even though the fiscal year they were intended to cover had begun the previous July. The mood of defeatism and lethargy impelled a normally clubbable Senator, Thomas Dodd of Connecticut, to lapse from grace by telling his brethren off. Coincidentally, the Baker scandal implicated the Senate as an institution and (alas) made even so unappealing a hack as Allen Drury look like a model of Balzacian discernment.

By November, events had sustained Mr. Clark’s indictment, then, on Black Friday, gave it a supremely ironic twist. With the succession of Lyndon B. Johnson, a politician who personified the Senate Establishment became President of the United States. Senator Clark’s analysis, intended to throw probing light on processes of power in the Senate, suddenly also became a description of the system that produced Lyndon B. Johnson.

What is the system? In brief, it is the mechanism that turns liberal majorities at election time into a mandate for conservatism on Capitol Hill. By Mr. Clark’s plausible count, out of 67 Democrats in the 100-member Senate, a minimum of 40 are supporters of the Kennedy-Johnson Administration. The Republican minority is far from being a black lump of reaction; at least ten GOP Senators can be counted on to vote for generally liberal legislation. Indeed, the Senate of the 88th Congress is probably more “liberal” in purely numerical terms than any Senate we shall live to see.

But the numerical predominance is thwarted by the Senate Establishment, which as Mr. Clark sees it “after a relatively brief sojourn here—I am now in my seventh year—is almost the antithesis of the democratic process. It is not selected by any democratic process. It appears to be quite unresponsive to the caucuses of the two parties, be they Republican or Democratic. It is what might be called a self-perpetuating oligarchy with mild, but only mild, overtones of plutocracy.”

Informed Americans are familiar with two main props of the ruling Establishment in the Senate and House—the safe district (usually rural) and the seniority system. Since power in Congress derives in part from years of service, those members from one-party areas can accumulate priceless tenure and rise up the ladder even though their views may reflect a protected and parochial—and unrepresentative—electoral base. This is well known. What is less known is that the chief instrument of power of these senior members is tight control over committee appointments.

In his remarkable speeches, reprinted here verbatim, Mr. Clark calls the roll on every committee of the Senate and shows a consistent pattern of over-representation of conservative Southern Democrats on the key committees. Though Southern Senators make up 34 per cent of the total Democratic bloc, Southerners hold 50 per cent of the Democratic seats on the Appropriations Committee, 55 per cent on Finance, and 47 per cent on the Steering Committee (the committee that is itself the judge of the size and composition of all other committees).

Seniority alone does not account for this telling pattern. Sometimes seniority is respected; other times it is not. Democratic Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, himself a liberal, was at pains to deny any deliberate attempt to stack the committee. In accord with Senate ritual, Mr. Clark was also careful to deny that he was impeaching the motives of any esteemed colleague. It just happens that time after time conservatism triumphs over mathematics in the parceling out of prize assignments. (Of all the charges made against Bobby Baker, incidentally, the most institutionally damaging is the assertion that the then Secretary of the Senate deliberately misrepresented the wishes of liberal members concerning the committees on which they wanted to serve.)

Still, though Mr. Clark doesn’t dig into the matter, there is more than conservative omnipotence behind the Establishment. There is also liberal impotence. Northern liberals complain about the cohesion and power of the Southern bloc, but notably refuse to emulate the discipline that makes someone like Senator Russell of Georgia the potent spokesman of a faction. The curse of the Senate liberals has been the cult of personality, with its glorification of mavericks like Wayne Morse. The tradition goes back to the Progressive era, when Senators like Old Bob LaFollette and George Norris acquired a romantic aura as lone crusaders against a baleful system. This tradition is at once the glory and the weakness of the liberals—it prompts eloquent speeches like those made by Senator Clark and yet it erodes the parliamentary strength of the bloc that could translate those speeches into achievement. At one point during Mr. Clark’s assault on the Establishment, Senator Proxmire of Wisconsin—a LaFollette manqué—quibbled over a detail, adding as a wistful aside, “This is the trouble with us liberals. We can never get together.”

The paradoxial truth is that it may take a product of the Establishment to be its executioner. In moving from the Majority Leadership of the Senate to the Presidency, Lyndon Johnson has done more than change jobs—he has also changed parties. In the useful terminology of James MacGregor Burns (who contributes a foreward to Senator Clark’s book), there are four parties in Congress: the Presidential Democrats and Republicans, and the Congressional Democrats and Republicans. Mr. Johnson was once the embodiment of a Congressional Democrat; now his job makes him a member of the Presidential Party. Assuming that he wants to win the election in his own right next November—surely a safe assumption—Mr. Johnson knows full well that he has to respond to those interests within his party that have decisive effect on presidential elections. These are the interests most opposed to the conservative coalition that dominates the Senate and House. It was telling symbolism that when Mr. Johnson made his first speech to Congress as President, two of the guests sitting near his family’s box in the gallery were Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Mayor Wagner.

President Kennedy dealt gently with Congress, in part because he did not want to seem a wild radical. Mr. Johnson’s problem is to prove the reverse—that he is not the captive of the congressional conservatives. His first moves suggest that he may take an aggressive tack with Congress, and step by step he may be drawn into frontal conflict with the system that gave him prominence. If a fight develops, Mr. Clark’s book may be a tract useful to the President’s cause, and the Senator from Pennsylvania could be one of his staunch allies. No trick of history could more disconcert either man.

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