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Caro And Legislative Power I: LBJ And Harry Byrd

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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: ‚ÄúLyndon 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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