The Politics of Legislation
LBJ used his skill as a legislative manager for political effect–working to secure passage of key measures that he inherited from Kennedy. The Civil Rights Act was the most prominent such bill, but the list also included such politically significant offerings as the foreign aid bill, a tax-cutting measure, and a proposal to establish cotton and wheat subsidies.
Johnson got off to a somewhat rocky start, however; he was outmaneuvered by Louisiana congressman Otto Passman on the level of foreign aid appropriations. A Passman amendment to cut foreign aid spending by almost 33 percent passed, thanks to votes from five conservative Texas congressman. In late December 1963, the President made clear to Austin representative Jack Brooks that he would remember who stood with him.
President Johnson: You want to know honestly how I feel?
Jack Brooks: Yeah.
President Johnson: I’m really humiliated that I’m President, and I’ve got a friendly Speaker, and I’ve got a friendly Majority Leader, and I’ve got a friendly Albert Thomas, I’ve got a friendly Jack Brooks, and Otto Passman is king. I think that’s disgraceful in this country.
Because I want to tell you when I see you the next time—confidentially—
President Johnson: —what we’re looking at in the world. And it’s a hell of a lot worse than it was last year. And you’re giving us 3 billion [dollars] to deal with, and you gave Kennedy 3.9 [billion dollars].
And I don’t think that’s fair, and I don’t think it’s right. I think it’s awful that a goddamned Cajun from the hills of Louisiana has got more power—
Brooks: He’s no Frenchman, though!
President Johnson: —has got more power than all of us. I just think that’s awful.
President Johnson: But that’s what you’ve got to do. And some day we’ll get our way, and if I ever walk up in the cold of night and a rattlesnake’s out there and about ready to get him, I ain’t going to pull him off—I’ll tell you that.
Brooks: No, I understand.
President Johnson: Now, you remember that.
Brooks: I want you to remember it. We’ve got some people from—
President Johnson: I remember it. Now, you just go and tell all these Texans that want to hit Russia that I want to put those sons of bitches in uniform.
Brooks: They ought to be.
President Johnson: Let them go fight the Communists for a while. They like to talk a big game—
President Johnson: —but they don’t want to do a damn thing about it.
Brooks: I’m with you.
President Johnson: OK.
Brooks: Good night. Bless your heart.
Passman wasn’t the administration’s only problem: Illinois congressman Paul Findley—a backer of Richard Nixon’s informal presidential bid—inserted a clause requiring the President to publicly certify if he waived congressional restrictions and allowed wheat sales to the Soviet Union. Johnson vented his displeasure to Houston congressman Albert Thomas.
President Johnson: I don’t want to debate it with you, my friend. I love you. But you know goddamn well when I ask them not to make me notify them publicly so it wouldn’t be in the papers . . .
Albert Thomas: Well . . .
President Johnson: You know that I know what I’m doing.
Thomas: Frankly, I—
President Johnson: You know, and we screwed it up. This damn fool [Minnesota senator Hubert] Humphrey put that paragraph on.
Thomas: That’s right—
President Johnson: I told [House Majority Leader Carl] Albert to get it off, cut it off.
Thomas: I think it’s your partners over on the Senate side. Now, old Otto [Passman] played ball. He told me he was going to do his damnedest to take it out.
Have you got the language in front of you?
President Johnson: Yes, sir, I’ve got it front of me. And it oughtn’t to be in there. It’s just a damn—
Thomas: [hurriedly reading] “Agency or national in connection with the purchase . . . [etc.].”
President Johnson: That’s right.
Thomas: “Or national except when the President determines that such guarantees would be in the national interest.”
President Johnson: That’s all right—period.
Thomas: “And reports each”—
President Johnson: No, no! No! Period, after “national interest.”
Thomas: I know, but read your language further. “And reports each determination.”
President Johnson: [loudly] Why should I want to report to everybody that I screwed a girl? You screwed one last night, but you don’t want to report it.
Thomas: [slyly] I wish I did.
President Johnson: Well, you know what I’m talking about. That made it come home to you, didn’t it?
Thomas: Well, it ain’t going to—
President Johnson: Don’t you think I’m a damned idiot, now.
Thomas: Now, now—
President Johnson: Well—
Thomas: Now, now, now, now. Of course not. But I don’t think it’s going to hamstring you a bit on—
President Johnson: It doesn’t hamstring me. It just publicizes that I’m pro-Russian right when [Richard] Nixon’s running against me. That’s all it does.
Thomas: Well, he ain’t going to run, because he ain’t going to—
President Johnson: Well, listen, Albert—
Thomas: —he ain’t going to get two or three—
President Johnson: Listen, Albert. You and I are buddies now. You understand politics, and I do, too. I’m telling you that we’re working with the Republicans up there 100 percent.
Thomas: Well, I’m on your side.
President Johnson: Well, all right. You just don’t ever agree that that’s a good clause, because you know goddamn well it ain’t. Don’t try to shit me, because I know better.
Thomas: Here’s the Speaker. Well, I’ve worked with it in the—
President Johnson: Yeah, you’ve worked with it, but you’ve been working with it under Republican presidents, not under Democrats. When a Democratic President has to report that he makes a determination that it’s in his interest to go with Russia, it’s not good when you’re running for office. Now, you know that, don’t you?
The President had better luck in other key legislative matters from early 1964. Getting the tax bill passed—and the political benefits it would produced—required some blunt lobbying of Indiana senator Vance Hartke, who wanted a tax break for a musical instruments plant in Elkhart, Indiana.
President Johnson: Vance?
Vance Hartke: Yes, sir.
President Johnson: Can’t you help me on this excise tax thing? You’re going to wreck this damn bill. We’re not going to have any. They’re going to get together this afternoon and try to make a motion to keep all excise taxes in there, and we need your help.
Hartke: [searching for words] Well, I mean, I suppose that way started out—
President Johnson: I know it. And [New Mexico senator] Clint Anderson, though, they all got mad yesterday because you-all screwed up that oil vote. And they’re after the oil companies, and [Delaware senator John] Williams and everything else. Those big oil companies oughtn’t to be raising hell [for] 40 million. They got off with 400 million, and they ought to let you-all off the hook.
But now we’ve got it in a big screwed-up mess, and we—all of us are going down in defeat if we can’t operate any better than that. There’s no leadership in the committee.
So for God’s sake, get in there. Clint Anderson says he’ll change, and you change, and get two or three more and let’s . . .
Hartke: The one big thing in there, the one thing I wanted, was [to cut the tax on] musical instruments.
President Johnson: Oh, well—
Hartke: This is—
President Johnson: What’s important is the big credit to the Democratic Party, and let’s go on. The goddamned band and musical instruments—they won’t be talking about it next November.
Hartke: They will in Elkhart—
President Johnson: What they’re going to be judging us by is: they’re going to be judging us whether we passed the tax bill or not and whether we’ve got prosperity.
Perhaps the clearest example of the intersection of politics and policy came in the farm bill, as LBJ explained in this March 7 excerpt with legislative liaison Larry O’Brien.
President Johnson: And I think that we’ve just got to sit down with our Northerners and tell them, “Now, goddamnit, you’re going to have poverty [legislation], and you’ve had accelerated public works, and you’ve had slum clearance, and you’ve had urban renewal, and you’ve had these things that we helped you on, and we’ve have passed all the labor things you want—manpower retraining.” [For] the Negroes—we’ve spent a lot of time on civil rights, for your area/districts.
Now, for God’s sakes, let us get some votes in the South and Midwest, so we can have the control.
Larry O’Brien: Yeah.
President Johnson: Just let us control this Congress by getting some votes in the South and Midwest. Now, we don’t want to keep on electing Republican-Democrats from Florida, from Texas, and these other states, and we don’t want to elect all-Republican delegations from the Midwest.
Larry O’Brien: Yeah.
The President was blunt about the partisan impact of the bill in his lobbying, as well; here he explains the political benefits to Allen Ellender, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
President Johnson: Now, you go on and get me some kind of a farm bill. I don’t want to know about the details—
Allen Ellender: I’m going to get you—
President Johnson: But you and [Agriculture Secretary] Orville Freeman get together; if you and Freeman can’t . . .
You see, this is an election year, and Democrats are up. If we don’t have a farm bill, they’re going to catch hell. Now, don’t—
Ellender: I’m going to get you a farm—
President Johnson: You and Freeman get—you and Freeman get together, and you-all agree on something, because he thinks you’re a good man—
Ellender: All right.
President Johnson: And you think he’s a good man—
Ellender: All right.
President Johnson: And damn it, you can agree. Both of you give a little bit—
Ellender: All right.
President Johnson: —and go on and get something!
The politics of the farm bill is discussed in the book; and in far greater detail in my “Politics, Policy, and Presidential Power: Lyndon Johnson and the 1964 Farm Bill,” in Mitch Lerner, ed., Looking Back at LBJ: White House Politics in a New Light, University Press of Kansas, 2005.