Southerners and Seniority

Brass Tacks

According to the conventional wisdom, control of Congress has lain for the past four years in the hands of southern reactionaries, rich with seniority, entrenched in their committees. Naturally, this picture has been overdrawn. It has not applied much to the Senate since 1958, and the manuevers of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson have made it less and less relevant to the House. Now Johnson's landslide promises to make obsolete the cliche of Southern legislative obstruction.

The President's failure to carry the deep South has produced a significant change in the composition of the Democratic majority in the House. Although there are 35 more Democrats altogether, the 89th Congress will have fewer Democrats from the South than the 88th. Many conservative Democrats with much seniority retired or were defeated and will not return. And most of the new committee seats open to Democrats because of their increased majority will be taken by liberals from northern and border states. Thus, in most committees liberal Democrats will be replacing both conservative Democrats and Republicans.

Such increases in liberal strength insure that there will be no necessity to change the basic committee structure, except perhaps for minor changes in the House Rules Committee. Democratic leaders and President Johnson see no need to upset the great bulk of precedent when they stand to make such gains from the normal workings of the system. But there will be one important dispute, and two Congressmen--John Bell Williams of Mississippi and Albert Watson of South Carolina--may lose their seniority as Democrats because they publicly supported Barry Goldwater for the Presidency.

Watson has been in office for only one term, but Williams is an excellent example of a Southern conservative who has risen to great power through the seniority system. Williams was first elected to the House in 1946, and today, at the age of 46, he has 18 years' seniority. He is the second-ranking member of the House Foreign and Interstate Commerce Committee and he is years younger than the Committee's comparatively liberal Chairman, Oren Harris.

Whether or not Williams and Watson will lose their seniority depends on the House Democratic caucus and on the Committee on Committees, composed of the Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee. President Johnson has shown little inclination to intervene to soothe southern pride as he did in the dispute over the seating of the rival Mississippi delegations in Atlantic City. Seven of the thirteen members of the Committee on Committees are from northern states, and they are unlikely to recommend that Williams and Watson retain their seniority as Democrats. The Democratic caucus is more liberal than its very liberal predecessors; it is even less likely to support the two Congressmen.

Williams's and Watson's dilemma faces many ultra-conservative Democrats holding once secure seats in the deep south. They, and most of the voters who elect them are followers of Republicans like Barry Goldwater, John Tower, and Storm Thurmond. If they continue to run on the Democratic ticket for reasons of tradition and seniority, they risk losing the election (as Williams and Watson certainly would have if they had had Republican opponents) or their seniority. If they run on the Republican ticket, they lose their chance to obtain power through committees and they still risk defeat. Whatever happens to Williams and Watson, conservative southern politicians can no longer count on the mechanics of the seniority system to give them the kind of power that so many of their predecessors have held.