Senator Harrison Williams suggested the other night that the record of the first session of the eighty-sixth Congress was as liberal as could be expected in a society dominated by complacency with the present.
Nevertheless, a review of this past year's effort by the gentlemen in Washington should cause great concern to the politicians, if only because of the difficulty in understanding what lesson to draw from the confused, and perhaps essentially meaningless, happenings.
The final results are especially perplexing when viewed in contrast to the hopes, aspirations, and fears of last fall and early winter. Shortness of of memory is an assiduously cultivated habit among embarrassed politicians and one that in general comes easily to voters (but not often enough, many defeated incumbents will tell you) so the exaggerated spirit of last fall already sounds clearly inconceivable. It was, however, heady enough to provoke Senator Lyndon Johnson into delivering what was referred to as a second State of the Union message; one which many thought more authoritative than the first.
Most of the talk early in the term, in fact, dealt with possible difficulties Johnson and Speaker Ray-burn could expect to have in holding the rampant liberals of their large majority in line. The situation, from their point of view, seemed truly formidable. In the greatest landslide since 1936, the democrats gained 15 seats in the Senate and 47 in the House, giving them nearly a two thirds majority in each house, and it was confidently predicted that this preshadowed a new era of immoderate liberalism in Congress. What emerged, however, was far closer to moderate dullness.
Despite all predictions it was, in the parlance of the ring, the President's round on points. And it was a truly amazing performance he put on. Relegated by the experts to the role of a lame duck at the beginning of the year, he was acclaimed for his leadership at the end. Aside from a minor defeat on his second veto of the Pork Barrel Bill, the only setback to his energetic leadership was the Senate's rejection of Admiral Strauss as Secretary of Commerce. Indeed, so successful was his defense of a balanced budget, that several Democrats vied with Republicans for the dubious honor of credit for appropriating less than Eisenhower requested.
In the continual squirmish over the budget lies the key to the session. The President, committed to an essentially negative program of holding the line, was able to capture the initiative and characterize the Democratic position as one of mere unimaginative opposition--greater spending no matter what the need. The election results were not a mandate for greater spending, but rather for greater leadership. Since the President appeared to give this, even if initially only in a negative direction, much of the Democratic appeal was undercut.
Another important factor was the quality of the minority Republican leadership revived under Charlie Halleck in the House and Everett Dirksen in the Senate, both of whom were able to work closer with the President than their predecessors. One consequence was a renewal of the Republican and Southern Democrat coalition. The Democratic leadership found its problem in controlling the Southerners rather than the ineffective liberals. Judge Howard Smith of Virginia retained his arbitrary direction of the House Rules Committee despite Rayburn's pledge to control him. And Johnson was unable to keep his promise of a civil rights bill.
The failure of the liberals--their direct defeat in housing, airport, education, and labor legislation along with their inability to inaugurate any comprehensive program--brings up the perennial questioning of the organization of Congress and the major parties, but it also calls into question the liberal ideology. Complaints that complacency among the voters merely found reflection in Congress may perhaps be sufficient explanation, but the voters evidently were not complacent last fall. The appearance maybe that a prosperous America prefers immoblisme to dynamism. Professor Schlesinger may argue that liberalism is cyclical in this country but it had better find a solid program if it wishes to prevent the dissipation of future victories in the manner of this year.