The South’s Clout After Its Retiring Congressmen

The South’s Clout After Its Retiring Congressmen

By Tom Fiedler

Vol. 1, No. 3, 1978, pp. 6-7

Early this year, when fighting erupted in the “new” civil war pitting the Sunbelt against the Frostbelt, the Southern Growth Policies Board packed up its research staff and moved north to Washington, D.C.

The reason was clear, executive director Blame Liner explained then; that war was being waged in the caucus and committee rooms of the nation’s Capitol and the troops had to be deployed accordingly.

But the move northward was also symbolic for another reason. Decisions affecting the South in the years ahead will be increasingly made by congressmen from the industrial North.

The move dramatized the fact that congressional power is shifting at an accelerating pace. And it is shifting away from Deep South lawmakers who had held a stranglehold on the congressional process for most of this century.

A decade ago it took little more than a phone call from Lyndon Johnson to Richard Russell of Georgia to initiate law. As often as not, national policy was determined over bourbon and branch water by men such as Wilbur Mills, John Sparkman, James Eastland, John Stennis, Sam Ervin, George Mahon or L. Mendel Rivers.

Though outnumbered by their counterparts from other regions, these and other Southerners controlled Congress so thoroughly that one writer described the institution as a Union Army run by Confederate generals.

They owed it all to seniority. But, in a twist of irony, the sureness of time that carried them to power also assured their demise.

“I was invited to a meeting with some of the senior (Southern) members,” recalls Liner. “Carl Perkins, Jennings Randolph, John Stennis and John Sparkman were there. And if it hadn’t have been for (Russell) Long and (Jim) Wright, I would have thought I was in a retirement community.”

Now, with the end of the 95th Congress, a combination of death, retirements and reform spurred ironically by the abuses the seniority system allowed – has virtually ended the Southern domination of Congress.

More importantly, because only one Southern democrat was elected to the Senate between 1956 and 1970, the power on many key committees will flow to Northern and Western liberals.

What that portends is dramatically symbolized on the Senate Judiciary Committee, birthplace of 60 percent of all legislation and arbiter of all civil rights bills. Sen. James Eastland, the pudgy, cigar-smoking Mississippi plantation owner – who once said on the Senate floor that “Negroes are an inferior race” – is retiring after 36 years.

He will be succeeded by Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts whose late brothers’ names are intrinsically tied into the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

There are numerous other examples: John Sparkman of Alabama will turn over chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee to Frank Church, a liberal from

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Idaho; when John McClellan of Arkansas died early this year, his Appropriations Committee went to Warren Magnuson of Washington.

The Texas delegation alone will be stripped of almost 150 years of House seniority, more than half the South’s total loss of 216 years.

In the Senate, the South will lose through retirements 92 years of seniority. That doesn’t include the losses of men like McClellan and James Allen of Alabama – the South’s master tactician who died during this term.

When Congress reopens in January, the South will be able to claim control of only three major Senate committees: Armed Services, headed by 76-year-old Stennis of Mississippi; Agriculture, headed by Herman Tahnadge, 64, of Georgia (who is being investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee); and Finance, headed by Russell Long, 59, of Louisiana.

In the House, Southerners will preside over just two major panels assuming that they are elected by the caucus. Appropriations will shift to the control of Jamie Whitten of Mississippi and Government Affairs will continue under Jack Brooks of Texas.

Surprisingly, however, students of Southern politics don’t believe that this loss of seniority will have a negative impact on the region.

“It looks like we’ve suffered a tremendous loss,” said South Carolina Congressman Mendel Davis who, at 35, is typical of the “new South” lawmaker.

“But the interesting thing is that while (the power) was changing, Congress itself was changing.” In substance, the South’s loss of seniority coincided with a de-emphasis of the seniority system in Congress. The irony is that many of the reforms pushed in recent years by young, mostly Northern lawmakers were aimed at loosening the grip of oligarchal Southerners on the levers of power.

Today, non-Southerners assuming the key positions find themselves with far less clout than their recent predecessors. That, say relative newcomers like Davis, will protect the South from retaliation.

And at least as important is the fact that the “new breed” of Southern congressmen is ideologically undistinguishable from his counterpart from another region, and thus lacks the Southern consciousness of his forebears. There is only one explanation for this.

“Race was the issue that held the Southern bloc together,” says Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, 38, one of this breed. “Today we are more like the rest of the country.”

Lawmakers like Lawton Chiles and Richard Stone of Florida, Nunn of Georgia, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas,

Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and even House Majority Leader Jim Wright of Texas differ as a group from “frostbelt” congressmen only in the shadings of their accent.

That trend is being continued in balloting so far this fall. In Alabama and Mississippi the old Southern courthouse politicians have been snubbed in favor of fresh, often progressive faces. The match between young progressive Charles “Pug” Ravenel and arch-conservative Strom Thurmond in South Carolina, often called a race between the “Old South” and the “Changing South,” epitomized the contrast in ideology now offered voters, a contrast that wouldn’t have been possible there a decade ago.

“The ones who are being elected,” said Steve Suitts, executive director of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Council, “are those who say they want to run government like a business.”

“They’ve got no ideology about race. They take the position that if they can uplift the whole population, they are uplifting all segments,” he said.

Liner of the Southern Growth Policies Board calls this the “Americanization of Dixie.”

Indeed, Liner argues that there may be such a lack of Southern consciousness among lawmakers today that the region will be vulnerable to power moves from those who are jealous of the “Sunbelt’s” attractiveness to new industry.

“If the new Southerners begin to act as a bloc again,” Liner said, “it will be only because moves (by Northern congressmen) have forced them into defending their own constituencies.”

But perhaps, as Nunn pointed out, the burden of protecting the South’s interest doesn’t have to be shouldered by a handful of congressmen anymore.

“After all,” Nunn said, “look who’s in the White House.”

Tom Fiedler is the Washington correspondent for the Miami Herald.