Mike Harrington: The Task of Restoring Credibility to Government

Michael J. Harrington '58 is the Democratic congressman from the sixth district of Massachusetts. The third-term lawmaker represents one of the most diverse districts in the Commonwealth--microcosm containing nearly all of America's contemporary problems.

His constituency comprises some 475,000 people. The sixth stretches the length of the rugged North Shore; from the decaying industrial city of Lynn, to historic Salem, through the affluent one-time Yankee enclaves of Beverly Farms and Marblehead, to Gloucester where the shrinking fishing industry clamors for protective trade legislation.

The 37-year-old believes he speaks for his constituents when he states that there has been a "collapse of confidence in Nixon's judgment and his leadership capacities, which in most countries would be sufficient to bring a government down."

"We now have a near absolute majority who are turned off, and who are the 1974 version of the American radical--similar to the malcontent of the '60s. I think that a lot of the underpinnings of the government have been ripped loose, not just because of the energy or economic crisis but by the growing feeling that there is just nothing anymore that is able to perform the function of standing fast and being the subject or object of respect or inspiration."

Harrington, who is married and has five children, is a graduate of Harvard College ('58), Harvard Law School ('61), and a student of the Graduate School of Public Administration ('62-'63). He is teaching a seminar at the Institute of Politics this year, "How the Congress Responds to Crisis." He is confident that Nixon will either resign or be impeached. He speculates that Tuesday's Republican loss of the Cincinnati congressional seat of Rep. Willis D. Gradison Jr. (R-Ohio) to the Democrats will create "more than just subsurface panic" in the GOP, and it will place "enormous pressure" on the president to resign.

"I don't know what in the world the Republican party can do to get themselves divested of Nixon, though I think there are a lot more people thinking about that now than there were a month ago."

Harrington believes that the question of impeachment will come before the House for a vote by the first week of May, and he has already made up his mind that he will vote affirmatively.

"The elements [for impeachment] are certainly there in terms of obstruction of justice and conspiracy judging by the nature of the indictments last week. I suppose, though, I am more comfortable leaving the crimes out and getting into the overall question of the erosion of the capacity to provide leadership credibly."

He is very much a supporter of a broadly structured definition of impeachment, and he does not agree with the president's legal defense.

"Impeachment is a device which was clearly intended by the founding fathers so there would be political as well as criminal occasions where there would be a need to remove the president. Nobody is going to maintain very seriously that it be only on the basis of serious crimes."

Harrington feels that a more difficult issue than impeachment itself will be whether the president should be granted some form of immunity to encourage his resignation. He maintains that the present situation gives the president no "recourse except to stay there and fight it out with the powers and resources of the office which the public collectively pays for."

He thinks the question is, what price is the country willing to pay to get rid of the problem.

Harrington thinks Gerald Ford is a reasonable alternative to Nixon in the event of his removal. "Ford would go a long way toward resolving the subjective problem the country has in confidence in itself and its established institutions. He'll be predictably right-of-center but he'll tend to be aware of the need for some consensus and bipartisan coloration of what he choses to do. I don't think you're going to get anything inspirational or overly creative, but he will be predictable and he'll work hard at it."

However, Harrington is not optimistic about the future of the federal government even if Nixon is replaced. "Enough people are having their dream or illusion of the ethic of their government shattered so that they are now prepared to accept some fundamental questions about the nature of the government, the delivery of services and the degree of leadership."

"Fundamentally I think there is a need for structural change--more openness for a starter and less emphasis on the national security argument. The separation of powers doctrine ought to be seriously re-evaluated if there is ever going to be any effort made to bring the Congress into a role of contributing to the direction the country takes and providing some leadership."

He foresees possible reforms of the present system which would mix the legislative and executive functions in more of a parliamentary direction. Whatever changes are made, Harrington thinks it is essential that the process be responsive to the needs of the consumer and not to the "large almost ungovernable institutions like organized labor and major business which don't know any particular restraints or restrictions."

The average man, says Harrington, has a "feeling of total helplessness" in trying to get relief or response from the government in dealing with the large organizations.

Harrington is an outspoken critic of the Congress, and he claims that its worst failing is that it "gives too much deference to the executive."

"The tendency seems to be let's duck it if it's tough and let the president take it on. Many situations would be better handled if the legislature took a strong policy position."

He sees the major weaknesses of the Congress as rooted in the committee and seniority systems which "tend to produce narrow and inward looking" congressmen who are only interested in advancing in the internal power structure and not interested in the nation's problems.

Harrington has served on three committees during his five years in the House, and he has found in each case that the chairman of the committee tends to dominate the preceedings. "Cosmetically there is democracy in committees, but practically there is very little."

Modifications such as better sources of information independent of the executive and better staffing and organization of committees could improve the situation, Harrington says, but he sees little true reform coming from inside the Congress.

Despite all his skepticism in other matters, Harrington believes that there "was an absolute shortage" of oil in past months. He thinks that the cause of the problem was that the government allowed the oil companies to dominate our energy policy, a situation which he hopes will change drastically. He says there was not any "effort to put together a world-wide rip-off by the oil companies--they aren't that sophisticated."

Harrington is concerned about gun control and he has recently filed a bill in the House to prohibit and confiscate all handguns, with exceptions for law enforcement officials and a few other groups. He sees chances for approval in the judiciary committee as good, but is less optimistic about the possibilities in Congress unless it receives executive support.

Harrington has been re-elected to Congress by strong pluralities since his victory in a special election in 1969. Ironically in 1970 he defeated Howard Phillips whom Nixon later picked to dismantle the Office of Economic Opportunity.

Harrington's re-election to the House is virtually assured this fall, and he has already set his sights on replacing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54 (D-Mass.) if Kennedy decides to seek the presidency in 1976.

For now Harrington is concerned with the difficult task of restoring credibility to the government.

"It isn't just the winter of discontent of 1974. It's more fundamental than getting more gas into the tanks and more jobs: That will help, but the core disapproval and cynicism just won't go away that easily."