27 DECEMBER 1963, Page 6

No Miracles for Mr. Johnson

From MURRAY KEMPTON WASHINGTON ITH: House of Representatives prepared last week to cut $800 million from the $3.6 bil- lion the Administration had planned to spend

next year for economic and military aid to the Unite ',Nations and to one hundred of the 112 sovereign countries of the world. There were reports that the President would fight openly on th floor of the House to defend a foreign aid programme which is at once a source of merited pride and of not-always-umberited dis- lurbance to his countrymen.

These hopes had their origin more in the memory of the President's past position as a paladin of the Congress rather than in the fact cf a present—which is at bottom no different 1.'om those of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower :old Kennedy: Lyndon Johnson belongs now to

Lie executive branch of government, that great

inimical blur which, as a professional. Congress- man, Otto Passman of Louisiana habitually identifies as 'those people downtown.' For Mr.

Johnson, as for many Presidents before him, the reality of legislative custom in the end out- argued any illusions that there could be some magical executive improvisation. His leaders and their Whips avoided the floor while the foreign aid appropriation was debated and passed; the House could work its expected will and worse than its expected will, with no protest from any substantial Democrat in the Chamber.

Otto Passman is a classic example of the operation of legislative custom.

He has been a Congressman for seventeen years and for nine of them Chairman of the House Committee charged with the appropria- tion of foreign aid funds. After all this time, he knows more of the details of foreign aid thari any colleague who might rise to 'the floor to challenge him. - The House is a large, disorderly body with 435 members, few of whom could hope to be familiar with the details of every complexity at public issue. They defer, on most things, to senior specialists, men in many cases less informed than the run of Congressmen on every public question except the one they have made their own.

Mr. Passman is the Congressional specialist on foreign aid and an exemplary instance of the House specialist who is, as often as not, against the thing he has made his specialty. He served the Foreign Aid Bill both as rapporteur and saboteur. After his presentation of its demerits, Sam Gibbons, a new Democrat from Florida, said that he had been listening to Mr. Passman for forty-eight minutes and had yet to .hear one friendly word about foreign aid. Would the Chairman vote for the Bill he had introduced? Mr. Passman replied that Mr. Gibbons must clearly be new to the House of Representatives; otherwise he would know that. through nine years as' its shepherd, Mr. Passman had never had one good word to say for foreign aid. Still it is a Chairman's duty to vote for any Bill he introduces, and he proposed to do his duty.

A larger complement of Congressmen than usual were in their seats to hear Mr. Passman explain why he had taken away 23 per' cent of the Administration's foreign aid request. They came early, even though they would not have to vote for two hours, because Otto Pasiman amuses them. The House's noticin of high comedy is Mr. Passman.

'1 hope my health holds out so I can go on doing this thing,' Otto Passman began. 'Those people downtown can work more tricks on you than a circus monkey.'

'It's gonna break us;' he ended, `if we don't bring it under control. We have only one foreign policy—the cheque book.'

In between, he expressed the highest wisdom of the Congress about a programme which helps provide the dam on the Indus, the weapons in the Mutual Security • Programme, the Inter- American Development Bank, the huts of the Peace Corps, the food for the Congo and myriad other elements of the sacred and the profane.

On mutual security: 'More Heads of State have been assassinated and more .governments have been overthrown since we began foreign aid than in the previous seventy-five years, be- cause we gave them something to fight for.'

On the United Nations: this year he had cut $36 million from the projected contributions of the United States. He confessed that in the past he had been too casual about giving the people downtown all the money they had re- quested for the UN. 'We were hunting bigger game so we gave them those cats and dogs.'

Otto Passman is a man who, if you permit him his fun, will give you what you want. Mr. Johnson, as President, seems disposed to work what wonders he works, as he used to when he was a Senator, by occasional submersions of his own large vanity in a pool of the petty vanities of others. In this spirit, Mr. Passman must be given his will on the floor, and. Mr. Johnson would- trust him to give back half the funds he had taken away in the privacy of that conference where the Senate and the House agree on a final Bill. After his fun, Mr. Passman went to the official stenographer and expunged all the vulgar pleasantries from the record of his remarks and substituted great sober chunks of his committee's written report on the Bill. His vanity extorts the privilege to be a clown on the floor and a statesman in print. The Presi- dent of the United States can only be the servant of this vanity; his lieutenants dared not affront it in debate. At the first challenge—which came 'mostly from minor Republicans—his reaction was a warning: the House must remember that the UN had rendered technical assistance to Castro Cuba, 'But I won't go into that or you won't give anythina.'

Mr. Johnson's captains had fled the floor, mindful of Hilaire Belloc's dictum that it is well to keep ahold of Nurse for fear of finding something worse. Nurse Passman, of course, presented some embarrassments; Mr. Johnson would make his maiden speech to the United Nations the day after his House of Representa- tives had ordered him to spend $36 million less than he says he must to support the UN's agencies. A young Democrat from Minnesota offered an amendment to add $30 million to Mr. Passman's UN recommendation. A Massa- chusetts Republican warned that, for the first time, 'The United States is on the verge of re- pudiating the United Nations.' It was, he said, 'hardly the Christmas present we would give the President' to carry to the General Assembly. The first mention of Mr. Johnson's needs had come from the opposition party. Mr. Passman unveiled a corner of that asperity which had driven the Democratic leaders from the arena: 'I tried to protect [the UN] as much as I could without exposing some of its hypocrisies and weaknesses. But may I say . . .' He expressed the hope that the United Nations was not yet writing the laws of the United States. The re- sistance trailed through for the teller's vote and the UN cuts were approved by 127 to .99.

Then there happened one of • those things which are worse than Nurse. The Republicans moved an amendment to forbid the Export- Import Bank to use American capital to under-

write loans to Communist. countries. The effect, of course, would be to stop that wheat loan to

the Soviets which is the last of Mr. Kennedy's monuments. Mr. Passman had made a private compact not to throw out the wheat loan; his only objection, an expression of duty to his promises above his public conscience, was that, even though he could find nothing good to say about the wheat loan, its disapproval might produce 'a quarrel with the Senate protracted" enough to keep everyone present in Washington over Christmhs. The Democratic leaders came out of hiding to rally their forces; even so, the House voted 218-169 to approve the amendment and thus to forbid the wheat loan.

The Senate seems more kindly disposed; and things will be salvaged, but not by light of day. For the act of deference to Mr.. Passman in public, -Mr. Johnson can expect to recoup half his losses and probably rescue the wheat loan in the Senate-House conference. The Administration, knowing Passman, probably asked more than it needed and will make do with this less. When the charge was raised that he had too seriously damaged the United Nations budget, Mr. Passman offered the reply that he had left intact a contingency fund from which the President could repair any shortages. If he was giving the game away, no one remarked it. What we had been watching, then, was one of those ritual fire dances by which the House of Representatives at once conceals and assures

its impotence. The President. has most of his way with the real while Congressmen like Pass- man have most of their way with the rhetorical.

It may be argued that the United States is better off for the devices which prevent Congress from

working a will so plainly confused when it is not malignant. But still we do struggle along with a foreign aid programme which does not even content many of the persons who admin- ister it. This is a case and an area where a serious Congress could do a genuine service, in study and consideration; instead the House of Rep- resentatives yields•over its function to an essen- tially trivial man whose pride is content to surrender most of the substance to the Execu- tive as long as he can control the language. As a result Congress can call the Executive's attention to very little except the petty vanities of its elders. Negation, long indulged, renders any institution impotent; the House can no longer offer any alternative to ,Presdential discretion on matters truly critical; ifs • attitude has, in fact, turned much of the government of the United States into a series of shifts, devices and private compacts to .do what the President thinks has to be done without the Congress admitting that it is being done. In the daylight, what should be serious discussion ends mainly as a fire dance. The result is a general infection; the level of public debate is so low as to create a body of voters as confused and ill-equipped to govern as the legislators they elect. Given his training, his needs and his emergencies, it would be a miracle for Mr. Johnson to function with any devices but the old ones of deference to empty vanities; but such a miracle happens to be the one for which the American legislative and political process has fallen into the most desperate need.