An important change in government took place in Washington D.C. last Thursday at the Democratic Caucus. The Democrats’ Steering and Policy Committee by a vote of 25-22, proposed that Rep. John Dingell from Michigan who had held the chairmanship of the Committee on Energy and Commerce for 28 years be removed and Henry A. Waxman of California be given the position.
The New York Times described the power and influence of that committee, “Many lawmakers and lobbyists consider the Energy and Commerce Committee to be the most influential panel in either house of Congress, one that handles, by some estimates, all or parts of two-thirds of the legislation moving through the House.”
According to the Times’ report on what happened, President-elect Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi helped Waxman to secure the ultimate majority. But Waxman himself deserves enormous admiration and praise for taking on Dingell who was one of the most powerful "bulls," as they are referred to in Congress.
Dingell had over the years stymied various efforts to increase gas mileage on cars and was seen as the handyman, always there to protect the automobile industry, understandably so, since it was located in his state, Michigan, and there was always present the tremendous clout of the United Auto Workers.
The proposed change from Dingell to Waxman is highly unusual. In its assignment of committee chairmanships, Congress historically has overwhelmingly followed the rule of seniority.
Although that rule has been attacked over the years by the left, it has sometimes protected members of Congress who were ahead of their time on controversial issues, e.g., Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee for many years.
He was disliked by many of the Southern representatives in Congress for bigoted, racial reasons, disliked by others because of his very liberal positions and, I suspect, most of all, resented because of his unconcealed contempt for those who were racially bigoted, and of course, he was a New Yorker in an age when New York City itself was not held in high regard.
Many remember 1964, when Sen. Barry Goldwater referred to New York in the presidential race of that year by saying the country might be happier if it just sawed off the East Coast.
Seniority nevertheless protected Powell. But it did not protect him when he was removed from Congress after being censured by the Ethics Committee in 1967 for corruption. He was the first black congressman from New York, and only the second black congressman since Reconstruction.
My very first vote when coming to Congress in January 1969 was to seat Powell in the Congress to which he had been re-elected. It failed by 307-116 and he died on April 4, 1972 in Miami, being flown from Bimini, a Bahamian island where he lived in exile. He was seen by some as a person who disgraced himself, and by others, myself included, as a martyr.
Powell was the first among great African-Americans who left their indelible mark in Congress. He attached to every major item of legislation a civil rights provision, which was always stricken by the majority. He integrated the congressional barbershop over the objections of some congressmen and the barber who complained that he did not know how to cut a black man’s hair.
The barber soon learned how.
According to Wikipedia, Powell “passed legislation that made lynching a federal crime and bills that desegregated public schools and the U.S. military. He challenged the Southern practice of charging Blacks a poll tax to vote, and stopped racist congressmen from saying the word ‘n****r’ in sessions of Congress.”
During my nine years in the Congress, I witnessed an attempt to unseat the chairman of the House Administration Committee, Wayne Hays, who was widely disliked in the Congress. He was not simply a bull, he was also a bully.
He was a brilliant debater and could cut an opponent’s head off with a rapier-like stroke. On one occasion, on the day after Ho Chi Minh died, I offered a proposal that we use that opportunity to reach out to the people of Vietnam who regarded Ho Chi Minh as the George Washington of their country and seek to enter into a peace agreement, ending the Vietnam War, which I opposed.
This position was considered by some to be treason. Hays referred to me as “the emissary from Hanoi.”
In any event, on the organization of a new Congress, there was a effort made by the more liberal and younger members of Congress to remove a number of chairmen, including Mr. Hays, Mr. William Robert Poage of Texas, chair of the Agricultural Committee, Mr. Felix Edward Herbert of Louisiana, chair of Armed Services Committee, and Mr. Wright Patman of Texas, chair of the Banking and Currency Committee.
Hays, bull and bully in his other activities and affairs, was in fact an excellent and impartial chairman in his conduct of the committee. That group produced the Federal Election Campaign Act amendment of 1974 providing for the federal government financing the presidential and vice presidential elections.
It was John Brademas (I was a soldier in his Army) with the support of Wayne Hays as chairman, who succeeded in getting the legislation through the committee and ultimately, Congress. When Hays was told of the effort to remove him, he asked me if I would speak for him during the 15 minutes allotted to him for his defense. I thought a moment and said, “yes.”
Fairness required that response. He was in fact a good chairman, albeit a bully in his other life and activities. He was being charged by Congress only as a failed chairman.
Richard Boland, Democrat of Missouri, chaired the caucus. I was called to deliver my two-minute speech. I opened with, “I know what you are thinking — what’s a nice guy like Ed Koch doing here, speaking for a guy like Wayne Hays?” Pandemonium occurred with huge belly laughs and I knew they thought they heard me say, although I did not, “What’s a nice Jewish guy like Ed Koch . . . ” In addition to all of his other faults, Wayne Hays was seen by many, including me, as an anti-Semite.
I then outlined his fairness and progressive positions as chairman of the committee. Wayne Hays was not removed as chairman. Dick Boland called me to his desk and said, “If I ever need a defense lawyer, I will be calling you.” The three other chairmen under attack were removed.
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