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August 9, 2009 - Ray Hall (Archive)
Have you ever wondered how LBJ, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, managed to persuade a reluctant, unwilling Congress; a Congress arguably more conservative then than now, to pass Cvil Rights legislation? How about Medicaid and Medicare that Republicans so despised--a proposal that led Senator Robert Dole and former Republican nominee for President to declare that his happiest vote in his U.S. Senate career was against Medicare? Did LBJ convince powerful Senators and reluctant Representatives by the power of his personality to put their reelection on the line just to please him?

Fast forward from the Thirty-sixth President to the Forty-fourth President, Barack Obama. President Obama has much more personal magnetism and charm than President Johnson ever had. Then why doesn't President Obama summon ‘Blue Dog” Democrats to the White House and use his personal charm to persuade them to vote for the Health Care proposal he really wants? Alas, it isn’t personality that matters; it is power; more specifically the power to determine how and where money in the Federal Budget will be spent. The power to ‘earmark’ then was in the hands of the President--Executive Earmarks transferred to Congress and that changed the world as we know it.

Atlanta, Georgia enjoys its prosperity thanks in large part to a succession of Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson. With apologies to Atlantans, there is nothing strategically important about that city or all of Georgia for that matter except for Senator Richard Russell who served in the Senate from 1933 until his death in 1971. From World War II to the present time there have probably been thirty or more military units situated in and around Atlanta. That includes the civilian but military dependent Lockheed that took over from Bell Aircraft in 1951 and now has its own Zip Code.

Senator Russell came into office as a “New Deal” Democrat, a Franklin Roosevelt Democrat; it was not until 1937 that he officially became the leader of the Conservative Coalition and how he voted, they all voted. Roosevelt and Russell were friends, LBJ and Russell were friends and if either President wanted his support all they had to do was call him to the White House, or better still go to his office. After the meeting another military unit would make its home in Georgia and Senator Russell would reluctantly vote for whatever the issue might have been.

Until recently the President had the power to direct where money would be spent. On more than one occasion the President told the Corps of Engineers (his Sec, of Defense) that this state or another needed a dam to control floods. The late Senator Robert S. Kerr (D-OK) through his years in the U.S. Senate and through a series of votes and as many locks and dams made the Arkansas River as navigable as the Mississippi.

That all changed about 1985 and probably because of Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV). As Chair of the Appropriations Committee he began inserting how money was to be spent for specific projects for his home state and by passing the President. Before long, other powerful members, Rep. Don Young (R-AK) and his counterpart Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) start building bridges to nowhere all over that state and presto Congressional ‘earmarks’ became all the rage--no pun intended.

Something else happened at the same time; lobbyist took over Washington. In the old days a lobbyist wanted access to the President. There are allegations that President Johnson’s lower desk drawer was filled with cash (from lobbyists) that awaited any member of Congress that might have needed a thousand or two for a tough campaign. Congressional earmarks has seen an explosion of lobbyist in Washington; after all there are 535 elected Congressional Members and only one President. It was about the time of Congressional earmarks that we started hearing about something called a ‘line item veto’ for the President. President Clinton had line item veto for a short time; he vetoed 11 of 82 items. However, in June 1998 the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision that line item veto was unconstitutional. The case was Clinton verses City of New York and was brought by then Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Presidents from Reagan to Bush the Younger have asked for the line item veto--to stop wasteful spending so they said. John McCain campaigned against Congressional earmarks; I can’t divine the motives of the Presidents or John McCain’s, but I expect that the fuss was as much about restoring Presidential power as it was conservation.

Congressional earmarks are here to stay--so are lobbyists. Remember, Jamestown got $2.5 million for the railroad Station from a Brian Higgin’s earmark. Perhaps our salvation is to give voters a choice between more than two political parties, real political parties instead of appendages of either of our two major parties, or we could abolish our present government in favor of a parliament. Then, if the elected leader loses a vote in Congress the government is dissolved. We kick them all out and hold another election. Not a bad idea, ea?


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