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IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY Why Not the Best? President-elect Jimmy Carter suggested that 1976 could be viewed as a turning point, a watershed in Americar history. Making generalizations about American politics is a risky thing, even with the benefit of hindsight. Nonetheless, three events of the past month--the death of Michigan Senator Philip Hart, the election of Senator Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) as Senate Majority Leader, and the announcements of Carter's cabinet nominations, especially those of Griffin Bell for Attorney General and Harold Brown for Secretary of Defense--suggest some of the critical choices confronting congressional leaders and some desirable solutions.
Phil Hart was a quiet man. His voice rarely shook the rafter or rang in the galleries of the Senate. Yet in many ways he was the most important man in the Senate, a constant reminder to his colleagues, an example of what they were supposed to be and so rarely were. And they recognized it. As a fellow senator once said, "His mere presence on the floor could sway votes." His colleagues knew that Hart was a man who voted his conscience, no matter what the political risks, and that his positions often represented those they should be taking.
Perhaps the most important piece of legislation for which Hart was responsible was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, later characterized by Jimmy Carter as the best thing that ever happened to the South. Although Lyndon Johnson's impassioned speech in favor of the bill is usually credited with securing passage of the Voting Rights Act, it was Hart, according to Clarence Mitchell of the NAACP, who played the critical role in persuading Sen. James Eastland (D-Miss.), the chairman of the Judiciary and a strong opponent of the bill, to report it to the full Senate which then passed it. "Phil Hart... was indispensable. Somehow he was able to lift the roadblocks...He was such an honest, such a fair man, that Eastland probably felt an obligation to act responsibly with him," Mitchell said.
In fact, although their views on a variety of subjects, including race relations and the war in Vietnam, diverged widely, Eastland and Hart were personal friends. Despite their friendship, however, Hart voted against Eastland when the latter ran for president pro tem of the Senate, believing that someone with Eastland's views should not be in the line of succession to the presidency.
The contrast between Hart's decision to vote against Eastland for ideological reasons, and his colleagues' selection last week of Senator Robert Byrd to be Senate Majority Leader is striking.
Byrd possesses one of the worst civil rights voting records of any man in the Senate, having voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and most of the other major civil rights measures of the 1960s. He once condemned the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a "self-seeking rabble rouser," suggesting later that the slain civil rights leader had incited the riots that broke out in the wake of his assassination. Byrd was so opposed to the progressive decisions of the Warren Court that he broke ranks with his colleagues in supporting President Nixon's ill-fated nominees for the Supreme Court, W. Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell.
Surprisingly, Byrd received strong support in his campaign for the post not only from conservative Southern Democrats, but from liberals who might more naturally have been expected to support Byrd's challenger, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.). In fact, so widespread was the liberal defection to Byrd that Humphrey, recognizing he had no chance of winning, withdrew. Two days later, however, Humphrey received a consolation prize--he was made deputy president pro tem of the Senate, garnering a $7500 pay increase, a limousine, a larger office, and no new formal responsibilities.
As a number of political pundits have pointed out, the crucial factor underlying Byrd's liberal support was the fact that virtually every one of his colleagues owed him a political debt of one sort or another; Byrd had skillfully used his position as majority whip to curry favor among his colleagues by aiding them in putting through pet pieces of legislation. Of course the liberals came up with a number of rationalizations for their support of Byrd, the primary one being that with a Democratic president in the White House, the Majority Leader's ideology was relatively unimportant. As one of Byrd's colleagues put it, "Byrd will just be a hollow log for (Carter and the Congress) to leave messages in." What was needed, they argued, was a capable manager who could secure the enactment of administration initiatives. As Adlai E. Stevenson III of Illinois said: "It seems to me that what the Senate needs more than anything else is management and a philosophically neutral climate."
DURING LAST fall's presidential campaign, Republican spokesmen raised just this specter of rubber stamp government. In light of some of President-elect Carter's recent actions, however, it appears that liberal Democrats may have just as much to fear as their conservative counterparts. The nominations of Griffin Bell, Harold Brown and James Schlesinger to the Carter cabinet are cases in point. All three nominees possess views that are incompatible not only with Carter's campaign promises, but with liberal Democratic positions on civil rights, defense spending, and nuclear energy.
Congressional approval of presidential nominees traditionally has been considered a matter of course, a courtesy automatically extended to an incoming administration. The Nixon years demonstrated the danger of this approach. Cabinet members are more than mere managers; they frame questions for presidential consideration and participate directly in the formulation of policy. Their personal views on issues that may confront them are, therefore, of great importance and are valid subjects of consideration in determining whether or not a nominee should be confirmed.
The upcoming series of confirmation hearings is, therefore, an important test of character for the liberal Democrats in the 95th Congress. They can strive for an extended honeymoon with the Carter administration and acquiesce in all his legislative initiatives. Or, profiting by Phil Hart's example in the Eastland case, they can remain friendly but true to their convictions, rejecting Cabinet nominees and policies, that they cannot accept.
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