13 DECEMBER 1963, Page 8

Mr. Johnson Crosses the House



THE soundest early measure of Mr. Johnson will be the speed with which he moves from

being the Congressional Democrat he used to be to becoming the Presidential Democrat he now must be.

The Democrats' have almost always divided themselves into the categories of Democrat Con- gressional and Democrat Presidential.

On all matters domestic, the American govern- ment can proceed only by agreement between the President and the Congress. The President repre- sents—or at least depends upon—a national interest; a Congressman is generally the product of a local interest. A Southern Congressional Democrat can, as an instance, go on being re- elected without ever bothering to attend to the wishes of a Democratic President and, given the nature of his electors, may even risk defeat if he attends to them overmuch. The leader of a Democratic majority in the House of Representa- tives does not command votes; he can only beg and haggle for them. A Congressman's first responsibility is to go on being a Congressman. He can, oddly enough, in most cases assure this as well—in many cases even better--in a Congress which avoids passing laws as in one which passes them. A Southern Congressman, as an instance, is 'ent to Washington to prevent the passage of a Civil Rights law; when Congress fails therefore, it fails for him. A Northern Congressman comes pledged to pass a Civil Rights law; if Congress fails, he can always blame Congress, since he is only one man among 435. The heart of the American legislative system is that it will never ask a Congressman to vote against his own interest.

The longer a Congressman holds his seat the more powerful he becomes. The House of Repre- sentatives is managed by a net of old men Whose functions are both paternal and protective. The most venerated of these is Judge Howard Worth Smith, chairman of the fifteen-man. Committee on Rules, who is eighty years old and a Demo- crat who cannot remember a Democratic presi- dent since Grover Cleveland whose principles did not affront him. When a president submits a bill to the Congress, it goes first to a committee of the House of Representatives for study and approval. Having run that course, it must go next to Mr. Smith's Committee on the Rules which controls the flow of Bills to actual debate and vote in the House as a whole. The Rules Committee, since it has generally been dominated by the old, has been traditionally distrustful of the new, and Judge Smith's essential function is to make changes in law as troublesome to effect as possible.

The conventions of politics often require a man to promise his vote to measures which his private opinion deplores and which he earnestly wishes to see defeated under circumstances where no one could say his vote helped to do it.

Measures of that sort are sent to die in the Rules Committee. There is no reason in ex- terior logic' why a Bill which has been approved by a Committee appointed to engage its subject matter should then have to suffer the mercies of the Rules Committee before the members of Congress are permitted to vote it up or down.

But there is every reason in the interior logic of any society which protects its members; and, if

our House of Representatives is the only demo- cratic parliament on earth to have an institution

like the Rules Committee, it seems hardly possible that every other democratic legislature must not have devised some other method to protect its members from exposure to the voters.

The day before he died, Mr. Kennedy had managed to bring his Civil Rights Bill almost whole out of the House Judiciary Committee and to lay it before Congressman Smith's Rules Committee. Judge Smith is a gentle Virginian who would certainly have manumitted his slaves with or without the Emancipation Proclamation but is undisposed to see the matter go farther. He waited through a week of mourning and then announced that be had no intention of calling the Rules Committee to meet until January and that thereafter it would certainly have to hear protracted testimony on the Civil Rights Bill. He could not see a House vote on Civil Rights before March. The Bill would then, of course, come to the Senate in April, which would mean that the depleted and weary forces of the South need only resist there until July when the presi- dential nominating conventions would force Congress to adjourn and leave the Civil Rights Bill entombed behind.

That was the challenge laid before a Lyndon Johnson who was a Congressman before he was a Senator and a Vice-President and who had learned very young to treat with care the antique furniture of the House, of which Judge Smith is so charming a piece, a sort of stopped grand- father clock, the more valuable for being unwork- able.

Mr. Johnson moved at once to shake and jostle old Judge Smith with an urge to torture those

ancient works into operation that seemed entirely disdainful of Judge Smith's face, frame and polish. A group of House Democrats had already announced that they would circulate a pc:ition to discharge the Civil Rights Bill from Judge Smith's custody. Such a petition requires the signature of 218 of the 435 Congressmen. It is a device most Congressmen distrust on the sound principle that a petition which rescues from the Rules Committee a Bill they rather want could set a precedent which sonic day might let loose a Bill they don't want but have to say they do. The Republican leaders, from veneration for Judge Smith's person and past services, announced that they would not sign. With the White House neutral, the rebels could hope for no more than 150 Democratic signatures and perhaps 20 Republican, and their petition seemed doomed.

At this juncture, Mr. Johnson announced his support of a petition to strip the Rules Committee of its control of the Civil Rights Bill. The pros- pective total of Democratic signatures rose at once to 180; there was always the menace of defections from the Republican boycott; the discharge petition had suddenly moved close to a majority: The President promised to loose his agents on the halls of Congress in that style of backslapping, arm-twisting and knee-jabbing which was his fashion as Majority Leader of the Senate. Judge Smith, suddenly outgunned and outnumbered, suddenly decided that he could promise to get Civil Rights before the House by the end of January. Mr. Johnson's boldness had broken the first line of resistance. The Presi- dent would appear on this performance to have begun by wiping from his mind most of the traditions and remembering all the devices he learned as a Congressional Democrat. As a Presi- dential Democrat, he seems then to promise a for- midable enemy for the old friends he left behind.