EVERY SO OFTEN, timing, events and the allure of unclaimed power combine to create a Goliath in the United States Senate--a senator, usually chairman of an important committee, able to influence single-handedly the future of a whole series of legislative proposals. There are various strains of "influence" in Congress and this kind is not to be confused with the organizational, vote-corraling clout that Lyndon Johnson possessed as Majority Leader in the 1950s. It is, instead, the old bottleneck route to power. Certain members have a stranglehold on those committees through which pass the major issues of the day.
The most significant bottleneck this session has appeared in the Senate Finance Committee, and the man gripping it so tightly is its chairman, Sen. Russell Long (D-La.). President Carter's welfare program is being chewed on--and by and large spit out--by that committee. His tax package won't even be submitted until next year because of fear of the same treatment. His proposed use of general revenue funds to bail out an ailing and tax-regressive social security system was doomed from the start, thanks in large measure to Long. As for Carter's energy proposals, Long played a major role in gutting them in the Senate. Long probably will do the same in the four-week-old House-Senate conference committee on which he now serves--the President's intense efforts to counteract him notwithstanding. Whatever the conference does, gas-guzzling and well-head taxes are clearly dead.
How this oil and gas millionaire was able to turn the administration's proposal on its head--by getting the Senate to approve his idea of rebating the bulk of the $40 billion in taxes to the gas and oil industry instead of to consumers--is a story that may never be fully told. The specifics of the horsetrading and collected. IOUs that went into destroying Jimmy Carter's "moral equivalent of war" in the Senate will not leave the cloakroom; Long's means of obtaining Finance Committee jurisdiction for so many important bills remains obscure.
Americans know just as little about Long himself--a man who will shape their future lifestyles, be it the energy they use or taxes they pay. He is, of course, the son of Depression populist Huey Long, but that is merely cause for confusion. Huey made a career of attacking oil companies and as governor taxed them very heavily; Russell, with an estimated wealth of $100 million in mostly oil and gas, is the self-proclaimed "darling of the oil companies." The "Kingfish" became a national figure in the 1930s with his "share the wealth" ideas, which extended even to blacks; his son has proven an ardent and imposing foe of social welfare programs in Congress. The younger Long's segregationist inclinations have arisen time and again, particularly during his filibusters of civil rights legislation.
Exactly why Long Jr. suffers from such a severe Oedipal complex, as Robert Coles '50 puts it, is a question to be left to the psycho-historians--if they can handle it. What's more necessary is an explanation of why his behavior isn't seen as scandalous by a press and public cognizant of his enormous power. Long's ill-advised positions on issues aside, his influence over laws affecting an industry with which he is personally involved represents, after all, a clear conflict of interest.
Not surprisingly, Long has a handy response to such charges. "If you have financial interests completely parallel to your state then you have no problem," he declares. Presumably, as Kirkpatrick Sale writes in his book Power Shift, the nearly one million people in Louisiansa who live below the official poverty line might not agree that their financial interests parallel those of their millionaire Senator.
But that doesn't mean they don't vote for him--as they do in overwhelming numbers. Long's popularity in his home state has survived his serious bout with alcoholism and a nasty divorce--both now over--as well as reports tying him to the crime empire of Carlos Marcello. One Louisiana mafia henchman admitted a few years ago to having carried money from Marcello to Long; others in the mob there take credit for using Marcello and Teamsters money to buy seven Senate votes to help elect Long Senate Whip in 1965. The Senator, it should also be noted, took a very active interest in the Jimmy Hoffa case earlier this decade.
Long has been lucky. Twice, formal indictments were voted against him by a grand jury in Baltimore accusing him and two other legislators of committing 45 "over acts" in connection with a bribery-kickback scheme during construction of the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington. And twice, the U.S. Attorney's indictment recommendation was denied by John Mitchell's Justice Department with no explanation given. Mitchell, of course, was the architect of Nixon's Southern Strategy.
THAT THE SENATE, in view of his record, has allowed Russell Long to accrue such massive power does not speak well for the resolve of that chamber's members--particularly those Democratic leaders who agree conceptually with the President's programs and talk frequently of ethics in government. Senate rules now permit chairmanships to be stripped from senators with seniority, but Long can expect to have bottleneck control for many years to come. The senior senator from Louisiana's way of doing things on Capitol Hill--the old way--is as powerful as ever. Carter is learning that lesson now. It is a painful one.
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