Home / General / Caro And Legislative Power I: LBJ And Harry Byrd

Caro And Legislative Power I: LBJ And Harry Byrd


One of the many reasons that The Passage of Power is fascinating is that it deals with the beginning of an unusually effective administration in terms of domestic policymaking. Because Johnson replaced a president who, whatever his other virtues, was unusually ineffective at pursuing his domestic agenda, the book tells us a lot about how presidents can matter. One thing I’ll try to do in discussing the new Caro is to detail the influence LBJ had on the legislative process, what’s repeatable and what represented LBJ taking advantage of unusual circumstances.

As I mentioned yesterday, Becker and Shane’s otherwise superb account of the Obama administration’s arbitrary terrorism policies quotes someone expressing a common view of how LBJ achieved his success: “Lyndon Johnson would have steamrolled the guy.” This common view is what one might call the Ian Faith view of Johnson: he proves that if a president is behind something he can ram it right down Congress’s throat. (Preferably, this should be accompanied by a colorful anecdote in which LBJ gives someone The Treatment or makes someone watch him take a dump or something.) But that’s not really it. A lot of LBJ’s unusual effectiveness, for better or worse, was in his willingness to compromise with evil and/or stupidity and to give in on fights he couldn’t win. The tale of LBJ, Harry Byrd, and the tax bill is instructive.

As many of you know, one reason the filibuster was so effective was that it could be used to stop the Senate from doing anything; as long as a civil rights bill was pending the apartheid wing of the Democratic Party could stop Congress from passing other legislation. This was crucial, because it peeled off the substantial number of legislators who didn’t oppose civil rights legislation but didn’t place a high priority on it either. Against the explicit advice of the Master of the Senate, JFK had failed Legislative Tactics 101 by sending his civil rights bill to the Senate while most of the rest of his agenda, including his centerpiece tax cut bill, was still pending. Finance Committee Chair (and, of course, staunch segregationist and reactionary) Harry Byrd had kept the bill locked up in the Finance Committee, and the fact that this would also be used as leverage to stop civil rights legislation from coming to a vote was an additional feature.

Upon taking office, LBJ knew that he had to get the tax bill passed if there was any chance of getting a civil rights bill through Congress. And dealing with Byrd, he immediately grasped what the Kennedy team never did; that the arbitrary $100 billion dollar limit on 1965 federal spending Byrd was insisting on was non-negotiable. (Anticipating the Aaron Sorkin debating-school theory of American politics, Kennedy seemed to assume that since this spending limit was irrational Byrd would move off it if a persuasive enough case for other spending was made.) So LBJ did what he needed to do: he gave Byrd what he wanted, accompanied by a lot of rhetoric about “economizing.” There were Ian Faith elements to the story, but they involved LBJ bullying cabinet members who served at his pleasure to cut employees and budgets to meet Byrd’s stupid targets, not bullying key members of Congress. With a variety of senseless spending cuts to the 1965 budget having been agreed to, the tax cut bill was let out of committee and passed Congress, clearing the deck for civil rights legislation.

One question Caro doesn’t fully answer is why Byrd allowed himself to get outmaneuvered on the larger civil rights issue. There are a variety of potential factors, all of which probably mattered to some degree. Byrd was a tired old man who wasn’t really doing his homework on the big picture. He may have (plausibly enough) thought that a substantive civil rights bill would be a non-starter anyway. But another part of it is that before breaking the coalition of conservative Republicans and Democrats that had dominated Congress since 1938 was possible, LBJ had been willing to do the bidding of the apartheid faction in a variety of issues as a member of Congress and then a congressional leader. Because of LBJ’s past compromises with evil the Byrds and Russels were complacent about LBJ’s actual commitment to civil rights until it was too late. A lot of the political capital LBJ accumulated to pass the Civil Rights Act involved surrendering to the most odious forces in American politics (just as the New Deal did.)

Which is why I think that the Ian Faith image of LBJ is so enduring; it’s much easier to live with ruthlessness if it means Always Winning rather than (more realistically) losing a lot so that you can win on some crucial big things. I was interested in the recent discussion in comments about Humphrey in 1968, in which some of out most astute commenters said that even in retrospect they couldn’t have voted for Humphrey and that HHH should have resigned rather than cheerlead for Vietnam. My own take is that 1)cheerleading for Vietnam was Humphrey’s job, 2)his resignation would have done absolutely nothing to stop the carnage, and 3)a Humphrey that crossed LBJ (and his crucial labor allies) would have had less than no chance of winning what was still an elite-driven nomination process in 1968. But doing what it takes to win is a lot more attractive in theory than in practice, and because unlike Johnson he never got a chance to be president, Humphrey was just a sellout. But, for better or worse, he was doing exactly what his mentor would have done. Fortunately, Nixon and Kissinger proved that it didn’t really matter by wrapping up the war quickly and not starting to bomb Cambodia or something…

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  • Lee Hartmann

    You’re telling me LBJ never had a cricket bat?

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Two thoughts on this interesting post:

    1) There’s a difference between horsetrading and searching for (nonexistent) middle grounds. LBJ, at least, practiced the former not the latter. Our current administration often appears to get lost in search of the latter (though this could of course just be a not-terribly-effective p.r. strategy).

    2) You don’t have to like Nixon or his handling of the war to recognize that a) Nixon won in November ’68; and b) in part due to the presence of Wallace, Humphrey almost won. So it’s a reasonable question to ask whether at any time in the ’68 campaign Humphrey could have distanced himself more–at least rhetorically–from the Johnson administration’s handling of the war in a way that would have helped him electorally. The conclusion of this post seems to be that voters’ expecting Humphrey to behave differently were being irrational. Well, sometimes voters are irrational. One thing politicians can’t do is appoint a new electorate. Given the state of the electorate in ’68, could Humphrey have played his deeply imperfect hand better? That’s the interesting question.

    • rea

      Remember, Nixon won in part by promising to end the war (although he refused to say how, and it turned out he meant to end the war by fighting it for 5 more years).

      • howard

        i think we can honestly say that the american public favored “peace with honor” over “get the hell out of this mess now” by roughly the nixon-mcgovern margin, but the point is that the curtis lemay/war without end faction (“bomb ’em back to the stone age”) had clearly lost by november, 1968….

    • howard

      i don’t want to hijack this thread (having not read caro on lbj, i got nothin’), but as (i hope!) one of the “astute” commenters, i got more on humphrey….

      1. ib, if we deal with 1968 as it actually played out, the national polling suggested a movement from wallace to humphrey after he opened up some rhetorical distance on vietnam with the administration; it’s hard to say whether that movement would have been bigger and earlier if humphrey had differentiated himself or if it was just a flirtation with voting wallace coming to an end;

      2. under normal circumstances, the job of the vice president is to cheerlead, but if the issue at hand being cheerled is vietnam (or its modern equivalent), the vice president has the agency not to march anymore and resign the job;

      3. i have no idea whether humphrey resigning the vice presidency and running in opposition to lbj would have led to victory or not (in my very own personal counterfactual, a humphrey-rfk team wins, winds down the war, and prevents the strong loss among white, working class, union households, leading to a much better ensuing 40 years, but who knows?); what i do know is that the reason for resigning wasn’t necessarily to win but to provide a political voice to the war’s opposition that was being shut out completely from the presidential race by the very serious people of the day.

      that humphrey didn’t suggests, to me, that he wasn’t the same guy he was in 1948, but now i really digress: the point is that i’m not subscribing to green lanternism here…

      • 1. ib, if we deal with 1968 as it actually played out, the national polling suggested a movement from wallace to humphrey after he opened up some rhetorical distance on vietnam with the administration; it’s hard to say whether that movement would have been bigger and earlier if humphrey had differentiated himself or if it was just a flirtation with voting wallace coming to an end

        I would love to see some political science analysis of this. Intuitively, it seems wrong to me; I would think people flirting with Wallace were typically hawkish and would never have considered supporting an HHH who was allied with hippies, but I dunno.

        On your last point, I definitely didn’t mean to suggest you believed in Green Laternism. My point is just that I don’t give a lot of credit to politicians who make moral gestures that don’t accomplish anything. We would look at Humphrey more fondly if he has resigned in ’67, but what would it have accomplished?

        • howard

          trust me, scott, i’d be interested if you could find some analysis; that’s why i’m careful about advancing any claims.

          however, here’s what we do know with a little more certainty (just a touch, mind you!): there was a two-george phenomenon in 1972 before the wallace shooting: people whose first choice was george mcgovern (or wallace) and whose second choice was george wallace (or mcgovern).

          after all, why do i have pie-in-the-sky belief that a humphrey-rfk combination could have emerged victorious? because humphrey had the union bona fides he had (that’s why i’m perfectly willing to believe the movement towards humphrey could easily have been that of traditional democrats coming home after flirting with a vote for wallace, independent of the antiwar positioning).

          as for motivation and historic memory: the antiwar left was desperate for a champion in late 1967. who better than an uncompromising liberal with a terrific civil rights track record and strong connections with labor unions? i believe the rallying round would have been strong and rapid, nothing like the bare notice given mccarthy.

          in short, i believe if nothing else, humphrey would be remembered as being his party’s conscience twice, in 1948 and in 1968.

          beyond that, i think he could have won in 1968, i believe even if he had lost in 1968, he would have been much better positioned in 1972, and i believe he would be much more admired today.

          (this is, of course, a different argument than whether or not it made sense to vote for humphrey in 1968, our original point of contention, but it’s interesting on its own merits.)

        • bobbyp

          Your judgement of a public/political moral ‘gesture’ is grounded soley in its subsequent efficay? Say it ain’t so, Scott.

          And let us assume that HHH deep in his heart detested the war. What did his loyalty and his resultant electoral defeat accomplish? I mean really, it strikes me that at some point, a wheels within wheels analysis has some significant issues.

          • bobbyp

            Please ignore the spelling erors. Mve alon new.

          • His loss wasn’t inevitable.

        • ploeg

          I would love to see some political science analysis of this. Intuitively, it seems wrong to me; I would think people flirting with Wallace were typically hawkish and would never have considered supporting an HHH who was allied with hippies, but I dunno.

          I’d like to see more analysis of this also. Regarding intuition, one must remember that George Wallace was a Democrat before and after 1968, and that circa 1968, many people would have preferred to vote for some type of Democrat over voting for a member of the party of Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Rockefeller. Hippies weren’t the only type of people that these folks hated.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks

            There were, apparently, some white, working-class Bobby Kennedy voters–disaffected Northern Democrats–who went from voting RFK in the primaries to voting Wallace in the fall.

      • jeer9

        If we’re going to engage in counterfactuals along the lines of #3, I like Gore stepping down after the Lewinsky mess (instead of touting Clinton in the Rose Garden as the greatest prez since FDR), running as a much more left candidate to win the nomination (which is where his heart actually was), and nominating Wellstone as VP, thus separating himself from Clinton’s neoliberalism and even further undermining the nascent support of a Nader candidacy. But then priorities took over because 1.) cheerleading for Clinton was Gore’s job; 2.) his resignation would have done nothing to inspire liberal support and avert the catastrophe that loomed; and 3.) a Gore that crossed Clinton and the DNC Third Wayers had no chance of defeating Bradley for the nomination.

        • Breadbaker

          Plus, under the 25th Amendment, there would have been a new vice president, and who knows whom the politically astute Clinton (far, far more politically astute than Gore, particularly with his back to the wall) would have chosen. Whomever it was would have been a rival to Gore.

      • Warren Terra

        Your own personal counterfactual seems to involve RFK not getting shot. Lovely to imagine, but not easy. The obvious way would be for him not to have been campaigning in California on that fateful day, to have resigned himself to the position of second fiddle to Hubert Humphrey quite early. It’s before my time, but that sounds unlikely.

        • howard

          just to play with the speculation, yes, warren, that’s exactly what it requires.

          remember, bobby kennedy wasn’t going to be the guy to break with johnson first: that’s why they ended up with mccarthy.

          so i could imagine – it was even, if feeble memory serves me correct, thought of then – that a humphrey-kennedy ticket, particularly 1 with a potential internal pledge of 1 term for humphrey, which is the way i recall it being bruited for 15 seconds back then, was an early binding of the wounds, let’s go beat nixon and the republicans kind of possibility.

          which would imply that kennedy wouldn’t necessarily have been the same target he became.

          but who knows: it didn’t happen in this particular reality, that’s for sure.

    • 1) There’s a difference between horsetrading and searching for (nonexistent) middle grounds. LBJ, at least, practiced the former not the latter. Our current administration often appears to get lost in search of the latter (though this could of course just be a not-terribly-effective p.r. strategy).

      I haven’t had a chance to read Scheiber yet, but if I understand this wasn’t just rhetoric; Obama really did think this shit, although what impact this had on policy isn’t clear. The consensus also seems to be that Obama has finally figured it out, although again we’ll see if this improves his negotiating when the Bush tax cuts come up again.

      • bobbyp

        Obama really did think this shit, although what impact this had on policy isn’t clear.

        The demoralization of the troops, however, may have a deleterious political impact….can they be rallied back to the fold?

      • FlipYrWhig

        But that presumes that Republicans would have been any more willing to “horse-trade” than they were to find middle ground. And just about everything I’ve ever seen about the GOP since 2008 is that they deliberately, concertedly, decided they’d rather obstruct and destroy than anything else, specifically including advancing conservative policy. They were burned by Clinton’s triangulation, whereby Clinton making moves to co-opt Republican policy positions redounded to Clinton’s benefit and not to Republicans. So Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, decided they had little to lose by refusing to play ball with Democrats on any issue Democrats cared about.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          In 2009, once Franken was seated, the horse trading could have entirely involved the Democratic caucus, had Obama been willing to work in a non-bipartisan fashion.

          • It’s pretty hard to do much horse-trading when you need exactly the same 60 votes on every issue and only have that window for a few months. LBJ’s horsetrading involved relationships he had been building more than a decade, and the fact that a lot of Republican votes were theoretically available gave him leverage on both sides. When only 60 votes are in play, the president doesn’t have a lot of leverage to work with.

          • FlipYrWhig

            Health care passed entirely through a patchwork of deals internal to Democrats. But if that’s not horse-tradey enough, things like DADT repeal subject to military involvement and delaying the EPA emission rule — which happened in close proximity in 2010 — smacked of horse-trading between social liberals and Rust Belt Democrats to me. Not that the vociferous Obama critics cut him any slack on those.

            • Right. Obviously, this is the key dispute: I think it’s remarkable that Obama and Reid were able to get Bayh, Nelson et al. to agree to any health care bill. Obama’s critics seem to think that (repeated failures notwithstanding) a health care bill was a given and Obama failed because he didn’t horsetrade his way to a better one, using leverage that tends to remain unspecified.

          • taylormattd

            You realize, don’t you, that such horsetrading involved Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh, Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, Blanche Lincoln, and Mary Landrieu?

  • Russell knew LBJ was going to push Kennedy’s Civil Rights bill (see p. 465). Even if he thought LBJ was completely and totally for segregation Russell also knew LBJ would want to be reelected. And to get reelected LBJ would need the support of Northern liberals who would demand a real civil rights law.

    I would venture to say that getting the tax bill passed had more to do with how much leeway Byrd was given as a chairman by the other Southern Senators, the personal makeup of Byrd who cared deeply about the budget and liked Johnson, and Senatorial norms that are completely gone now.

  • David Hunt

    I sometimes wonder if one of the keys to LBJ’s legislative success is that the evil putzes that he was horsetrading with could be trusted to honor their end of a deal after they were paid their pound of flesh…

    • I’ll write about this in my next post, but I think this is an important point; LBJ’s opposition just wasn’t as sophisticated (and was embedded in more differential norms) as a modern presidents would be. What LBJ was able to accomplish made it more difficult for future presidents to do the same things. Which isn’t to diminish his achievements; he had unique advantages but he perceived them and took advantage of them.

      • Lee

        Yes, LBJ also did not have to deal with the parliamentary party in a Madisonian system problem. Not only could LBJ count on his putzes honoring their deals, he could rely on significant moderate and liberal Republican support. Everybody, even the Dixiecrats, were still operating under Madisonian norms.

      • FlipYrWhig

        Good point and I hadn’t thought of it that way. I just commented above that Clinton’s successes — many of which rankled liberals at the time — seem to have culminated in Republicans resolving not to let the next Democratic president burn them the same way. So they decided they couldn’t even take “yes” for an answer, as for instance on cap-and-trade or on the individual mandate, and they would see how badly their intransigence might cost them, seeing as they had little to lose. It cost them nothing, and in fact they were rewarded handsomely. So Clintonian triangulation is dead and buried as a Democratic tactic. It stands to reason that LBJ’s suite of Democratic tactics would likewise be unavailable to Carter and Clinton. The Borg adapts.

    • TT

      I think in the ’40s, ’50s and, ’60s the prevailing norm in the Senate was the political equivalent of “We don’t have to give assurances as if we were lawyers”. LBJ did have a personal relationship with Byrd throughout the ’50s (he was one of only two senators to attend the funeral of Byrd’s daughter, something Byrd never forgot) and could rely on him to cast a tough or deciding vote now and then. That spirit of collegiality probably played some role in getting the tax bill through and clearing the decks for the CRA.

      Had Byrd acted according to prevailing post-1992 Senate norms, it’s doubtful anything would have happened in 1963-64. After all, Obama was on very good personal terms with Grassley, Gregg, Coburn, and others.

      • Right, although with the caveat that Byrd wouldn’t have given Kennedy the same leeway.

  • Not Manju

    Oh, I thought you said Robert Byrd….

    Nevermind ::ruthbuzzi::

    • Hogan

      I think you’ll find that was Gilda Radner.

      • Not Manju

        Then who the heck was Ruth Buzzi? Was she on Laugh-In and hit people with her purse?

        • Yes. Mostly Arte Johnson.

  • Murc

    With regard to Humphrey… I feel for the guy, but basically he had to choose between various levels of being fatally compromised.

    That happens when you have a party that’s divided against itself. Humphrey’s warmongering was unacceptable to a lot of people (and rightly so) and his failure to warmonger would have been unacceptable to a lot more.

    • TT

      Had Humphrey broken with Johnson over the war in late ’67 or early ’68, is it too much to speculate that Nixon might have been able to successfully pick off labor four years earlier than he did? He’d have destroyed Humphrey had that been the case. Splitting labor from the Democrats over the war and general hippiedom was one of his most important and skillful political achievements as president.

      • howard

        so the questions are: did nixon split labor and the dems or was a split occurring that nixon was clever enough to exploit? (my answer is the latter, and it was george wallace who showed him the playbook)

        and would an antiwar humphrey have been able to maintain a stronger democratic line than the actual humphrey and then mcgovern candidacies were able to? my guess is yes, but ymmv.

        • Yeah, but the key problem here is that organized labor strongly supported the war, which is one reason LBJ thought that Vietnam was necessary for his domestic agenda. To resign over Vietnam would have also severed Humphrey’s ties with the big unions.

          • so the question morphs into were the unions pro-war because george meany and millions of union households believed in the domino theory?

            or were they pro-war because when your country is at war, and when your kids and your friends’ kids are serving, of course you support that war, and anyone who doesn’t is a long-haired drug-taking america-hater with a student deferment?

            and if your old trusted comrade, hubert humphrey, clearly not a long-haired drug-taking america-hater, says “i’ve been on the inside and the war is a fiasco that is killing thousands of young americans and many more vietnamese for no good purpose,” do you think differently?

            i honestly have no idea, but i don’t think it’s inherent in the dna of american labor unions to be pro-war….

            • Hogan

              Even without hippies, one of the prime enabling conditions for the existence of the AFL-CIO and Meany’s position was “no more Reds in the union.” It’s not in their DNA, but it was certainly a major part of the unions’ recent adaptive strategy to be more anti-Communist than thou, whoever thou might be.

    • IM

      I think that was the basic problem: The vietnam war was the democratic war and the democrats* were the vietnam party: both pro and contra.

      But I think RFK could have perhapas, because of the Kennedy magic gotten away with his vacillation on Vietnam. But HHH was just an ordinary politician.

      * within limits: Trying to change his mind on Vietnam did end George Romney too.

  • Yosemite Semite

    Politics is not a choice between good and evil, but between the preferable and the detestable. – Raymond Aron

  • eric from cleveland

    Not a huge Obama fan but I don’t think it is possible to reach a grand agenda in line with the new deal or great society right now regardless of who is in charge. So I let him off the hook i this case. If you look all of these “big” agendas of American politics (going back to Lincoln, T. Roosevelt, FDR, LBJ, and Clinton) you’ll find they occur during times when one of the parties are changing their makeup internally. Interestingly this change is from a demographic shift going on in society finally reaching the political realm which tends to lag behind society as a whole.

    Almost universally across democracies this causes instability, breakings of political alliances, and changing of “political norms” of those times within the established parties causing internal chaos in the party and exposing every crack in their political armor. When those cracks in the political armor show a skilled pol will be able to exploit weaknesses and push/horse trade through an agenda otherwise impossible. Or to put it another way, if one party isn’t in internal chaos big change cant happen.
    Regardless of how skilled that pol is it would be impossible to horse trade or ram an agenda through a healthy unified political party. Right now we are not yet in a time like that. If current trends hold my guess would be the next time we would see a similar time would be when the Hispanic bloc gains control electorally of TX and FL in the next 10 years. The change that the GOP will have to make internally if they ever wish the White House will prob cause the enough chaos that a skilled dem could possibly get something big through.

    Returning to LBJ for a second, he had the added bonus of being a skilled pol in a time when both parties were undergoing massive changes. This opened up alliances and deal making opportunities across both parties that would never had been available even 4 years before. Or to put it in other ways, a skilled pols wet dream.

  • but they involved LBJ bullying cabinet members who served at his pleasure to cut employees and budgets to meet Byrd’s stupid targets, not bullying key members of Congress.

    Since when is the head of the executive branch “bullying” Sec. Freeman when he gives an order. I think you sacrificed accuracy in reaching for literary quality.

  • taylormattd

    So much pushback from the BULLPULPIT SOLVES EVERYTHING!!! crew. Ha.

    Regarding the book, it is just a joy to read. This entire series has been amazing. Not quite finished with The Passage of Power, but I’m loving it. Although, honestly, nothing will compare to Caro’s description of the Texas Hill Country, and how it shaped Johnson.

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