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A little Senate history from the 1960s

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted August 1, 2005

When I look at the "achievements" of the Minority Party as this First Session of the 109th Congress draws to a close, it brings back memories. I moved to Washington, D.C. for the start of the 90th Congress. President Lyndon Baines Johnson was in the White House. Democrats controlled the Congress as well. I look back at that period as the most enjoyable time I ever had in a serious job. We Republican staff had few responsibilities and I left the Senate office at 6:00 PM daily.

Senator Gordon L. Allott (R-CO), for whom I worked, was not the so-called Ranking Member of the Senate Interior Committee. He was second in line. He was Ranking Member of the Independent Offices Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Henry "Scoop" Jackson

The Interior Committee was chaired by Senator Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson (D-WA). Conservatives may have liked Senator Jackson's foreign policy and his opposition to Communism but on domestic issues he was a strong Liberal. Moreover, he ran the Interior Committee with an iron fist. There was no consideration for the views of the Minority.

Senator Allott had held up one especially odious bill for more than a decade because placing "holds" on bills was one of the few things a Minority Member could do. One day in the Senate cafeteria, an Interior Committee staffer had lunch with the Allott staffer who worked on Interior matters. While they chatted, Senator Allott's staffer mentioned that Senator Allott would give a speech in New York the next day. Senator Jackson's staffer asked a few polite questions about the speech and learned that Allot would be in New York for a few hours. Senator Allott returned from New York to find that the odious bill he had kept under wraps had been passed that afternoon by Jackson with proxy votes from fellow Democrats. Although Allott was an agreeable man who regularly co-operated with Jackson, the Senator from Washington State took the opportunity to kick Allott in the teeth when he could.

Democratic Senator John O. Pastore, of Rhode Island, chaired the only Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on which Allott was Ranking Member. Senator Pastore was a joy with whom to work and was not partisan. When Democratic Senator Robert C. Byrd, of West Virginia, briefly chaired the Subcommittee I was assigned to staff it. That was over four decades ago but I can hear the words of Senator Allott, "As long as we channel most of the money into West Virginia everything will be fine." I was an eyewitness. Byrd was more agreeable to work with than most Democrats as long as no one objected to numerous projects ending up in a state which was once part of Virginia. (Virginians had the common sense to throw the poorer part of their State overboard. Thus, West Virginia was born.)

Since Republican Senate staff couldn't accomplish much in the late 1960s we settled for making trouble. My area of expertise was urban mass transit. I was blessed to get to know, rather by accident, Robert L. Abrams. Bob's background was accounting. He advised me of activities in what now is called the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Armed with that knowledge and Senator Allott's blessing, I went after FTA decision makers. It worked.

Alan Boyd was the first Secretary of Transportation after the FTA was established in April 1967. President Johnson's Cabinet Members were not known for acknowledging Republican Senators. But Republicans had created so many problems for Boyd that he actually visited Senator Allot and his trusted aide to ask for a ceasefire. In those years I had time to cause trouble.

Later Senator Robert P. (Bob) Griffin, of Michigan, led the attack against LBJ's Supreme Court nominee Judge Abe Fortas. One of the highlights of my Senate employment was to have dinner with Senator Griffin and a reporter I had befriended. During dinner Griffin laid out his strategy for attacking Fortas and enlisted our help. Since I was the press aide for Allott, I spent countless hours explaining to reporters what Senator Allott was doing about the Fortas nomination. Senator Allott was one of the few men who pledged to filibuster Fortas, if necessary, to keep him off of the High Court.

Republicans spent most of their time figuring out what would make LBJ vulnerable and how they could stop him. Republicans had gained 47 House seats and 5 Senate seats in the 1966 elections. House Conservatives especially began to flex their muscles. At that time I met and began working with a young staffer named Trent Lott. He worked for Mississippi Democratic Representative William M. Colmer, Chairman of the House Rules Committee. Through Trent Lott and the generosity of a long-deceased donor who sponsored a regular networking dinner for the few Conservative Congressional staffers, we were able to plot how to stop LBJ in the House as well. Representative Colmer may have been a Democrat but he was as conservative as any Republican. When Colmer retired in 1972, Lott ran for Colmer's seat as a Republican and won.

Today Republicans control the White House and both Houses of Congress. The Democrats have little to do but plot for the next election. They aim to make trouble. However, there is much difference between governing and making trouble for the White House.

For Republicans everything changed with the 1968 elections. Richard M. Nixon became President. Senator Allott was elected Chairman of the Republican Policy Committee and became part of the Senate Leadership. He also became Ranking Member of the Interior Committee in January 1969. Republicans had responsibility to govern and their days of troubling the White House were over. Republicans had to figure out how to gain a majority in the Senate dominated by Democrats. It was hard work. Legislation to approve the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) and the Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) program was passed by the Senate. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew cast the deciding vote since the Senate votes were tied in both cases.

What Republicans observe today and what they deplore is that Democrats, having nothing to do, want to return to power. So did Republicans. So convinced was the GOP that Nixon would win the nomination at the 1968 GOP Convention in Miami that Senate Republicans blocked further judicial nominations that year. Undeniably the 90th Congress was hardly productive.

The Republican Party was revived following its disastrous 1964 election and had its eye on the 1968 election. The GOP objective was to keep LBJ from accomplishing much. The GOP succeeded when early that year LBJ dropped out of the Presidential race.

The difference between 1960s and 2005 is that Republicans did not manufacture stories about the opposition. Republicans often spoke against Democrats but did not smear their reputations. Nor were they vicious. Republicans were policy oriented. They disliked President Lyndon Baines Johnson as much as Democrats dislike President George Walker Bush. There the parallel is absolute. Republicans did not resort to attacks based on fabrication and name-calling. They opposed LBJ for what he had done to the country.

If the Democratic Party would stop the politics of personal destruction it could accomplish much, such as presenting alternative policies to Republicans now in power. Unfortunately, Democrats prefer the easier route of bringing people down by attacking them. It is sad to see. That venerable party could take a different route which would be good for the country. The route the Party is taking leads to a dead end. The Democratic Party could well regret what it is doing when sees the returns on election night 2008.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.


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