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What happened to Southern clout in Congress?
Region’s influence in Washington has dropped to lowest level in at least half a century, historians say

By Ben Evans
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — Rep. Howard “Judge” Smith of Virginia routinely frustrated the Washington establishment by leaving town when leaders tried to push legislation he didn’t like through the Rules Committee he chaired for 12 years.

Once in 1957, he blocked a major civil rights bill from President Eisenhower by saying he needed to tend to a barn that had burned down on his farm.

At the time, Smith’s antics were hardly out of place. Colorful Southern politicians ruled the roost on Capitol Hill, presiding with near-authoritarian control over panels that wrote the nation’s tax laws, set federal spending, and steered subsidies to cotton and peanut farmers back home. Near the end of Smith’s tenure in 1965, Southerners chaired about two-thirds of the committees in the House and Senate.

But Dixie’s heyday in Congress has come and gone. Today it’s rare to find anyone with a Southern accent in a position of power, and after the Democratic victories in November, congressional historians say the region’s clout has dropped to its lowest level in at least 50 years.

In the current Congress, there are no Southern committee chairmen in the Senate, and there are just four in the House — fewer than from the state of California alone. Only one Southerner, House Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, sits in the top tier of majority leadership.

“It really is the end of the era,” said Christian Grose, a Vanderbilt University professor who studies Southern politics.

There are plenty of reasons for the change, not the least of which is the South’s shift toward the Republican Party that was cemented in the 1990s. When Republicans lost control of Congress in last year’s elections, the region’s clout took a hit.

But even under Republican control last year, signs of waning influence were evident, with just a handful of Southern committee chairmen. Through deaths, retirements and a more competitive political environment, the South has simply lost the seniority that gave it such outsized influence.

“There was a time when Louisiana congressman Billy Tauzin, a former Democrat who switched parties in the middle of his 24-year House career before retiring in 2004. “But it’s not the old, genteel South anymore. It’s a brutal political playing field now.”

The change has far-reaching consequences, political experts say, not just on the earmarked federal spending but also on larger issues such as the Iraq war.

Brad Fitch, CEO of Knowledgis, a government relations firm that ranks lawmakers’ power, said regional dynamics play a particularly strong role on legislation such as the farm bill.

“The debate in the farm bill is almost never partisan,” Fitch said. “It’s all regional. It’s about whether the peanut farmers in Georgia are going to get more help than the dairy farmers in Wisconsin or the corn farmers in Nebraska.”

The good news for the region, he said, is that the South still has heavy representation on the agriculture committees. The bad news is that just one Southerner, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, made the top 10 lists in his 2007 “preseason” scorecard.

That wouldn’t have been the case 50 years ago. Dating back to the Depression, the South was so dominated by conservative Democrats that lawmakers who behaved reasonably well — and even some who didn’t — could hold office virtually as long as they wanted, earning seniority and privileges that their colleagues could only dream of matching.

Grip on power

The political monopoly produced legislators like Rep. Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, known as the “permanent secretary of agriculture” because he held such a grip over farm spending during a 54-year career.

Sen. Russell Long — scion of Huey Long’s Louisiana political dynasty — was called the “fourth branch of government” for his mastery of the nation’s tax code during 16 years as Finance chairman.

Committee chairmen held far more power and independence than they do under today’s centralized system, and Southerners often made clear their disdain for contrary views.

In 1972, for example, near the end of a 36-year career, Rep. Edward Hebert of Louisiana forced two Western liberals to share a chair because he didn’t want them on his Armed Services Committee.

Smith of Virginia, who chaired the Rules Committee, where legislation goes just before reaching a vote, served as a gatekeeper, according to historical accounts.

“He would literally put the bill in his back pocket and go home,” said David Cohen, a former civil rights lobbyist.

Fading distinction

Nobody has that kind of power anymore, said Rep. David Price, a North Carolina Democrat on leave from his job as a Duke University political scientist. Even if Southerners did, he said, they wouldn’t have nearly the impact on the national agenda because the South’s distinct interests have faded.

“Southern members are more like members everywhere,” he said. “We don’t wear white linen suits anymore. We don’t fight civil rights bills. It’s a new Democratic party. We’re mainstream Democrats for the most part.”

Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican and former majority leader, noted that as recently as the 1990s, Southerners like him and Newt Gingrich of Georgia held nearly all the top leadership positions in Congress.

While agreeing that the era of Smith, Whitten and Long is over, he called the South’s current low point an “aberration.” Regional influence ebbs and flows, he said, and the South will be back.

As evidence, he pointed to the title of a 1977 book by David Leon Chandler that explored the South’s influence in Washington.

“It’s because of what Chandler said: ‘The Natural Superiority of Southern Politicians,’ ” Lott said, grinning.

Southerners just got re-elected and re-elected over and over again. You stick around long enough, you get powerful,” said former Louisiana congressman Billy Tauzin, a former Democrat who switched parties in the middle of his 24-year House career before retiring in 2004. “But it’s not the old, genteel South anymore. It’s a brutal political playing field now.”

The change has far-reaching consequences, political experts say, not just on the earmarked federal spending but also on larger issues such as the Iraq war.

Regional dynamics

Brad Fitch, chief executive officer of Knowledgis, a government relations firm that ranks lawmakers’ power, said regional dynamics play a particularly strong role on legislation such as the farm bill.

“The debate in the farm bill is almost never partisan,” Fitch said. “It’s all regional. It’s about whether the peanut farmers in Georgia are going to get more help than the dairy farmers in Wisconsin or the corn farmers in Nebraska.”

The good news for the region, he said, is that the South still has heavy representation on the agriculture committees. The bad news is that just one Southerner, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, made the top 10 lists in his 2007 “preseason” scorecard.

That wouldn’t have been the case 50 years ago. Dating back to the Depression, the South was so dominated by conservative Democrats that lawmakers who behaved reasonably well — and even some who didn’t — could hold office virtually as long as they wanted, earning seniority and privileges that their colleagues could only dream of matching.

Grip on power

The political monopoly produced legislators like Rep. Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, known as the “permanent secretary of agriculture” because he held such a grip over farm spending during a 54-year career.

Sen. Russell Long — scion of Huey Long’s Louisiana political dynasty — was called the “fourth branch of government” for his mastery of the nation’s tax code during 16 years as Finance chairman.

Chairmen’s power wanes

Committee chairmen held far more power and independence than they do under today’s centralized system, and Southerners often made clear their disdain for contrary views.

In 1972, for example, near the end of a 36-year career, Rep. Edward Hebert of Louisiana forced two Western liberals to share a chair because he didn’t want them on his Armed Services Committee.

Smith of Virginia, who chaired the Rules Committee, where legislation goes just before reaching a vote, served as a gatekeeper, according to historical accounts.

“He would literally put the bill in his back pocket and go home,” said David Cohen, a former civil rights lobbyist.

Fading distinction

Nobody has that kind of power anymore, said Rep. David Price, a North Carolina Democrat on leave from his job as a Duke University political scientist.

Even if Southerners did, he said, they wouldn’t have nearly the impact on the national agenda because the South’s distinct interests have faded.

“Southern members are more like members everywhere,” he said. “We don’t wear white linen suits anymore. We don’t fight civil rights bills. It’s a new Democratic party. We’re mainstream Democrats for the most part.”

Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican and former majority leader, noted that as recently as the 1990s, Southerners like him and Newt Gingrich of Georgia held nearly all the top leadership positions in Congress.

Resurgenge predicted

While agreeing that the era of Smith, Whitten and Long is over, Lott called the South’s current low point an “aberration.” Regional influence ebbs and flows, he said, and the South will be back.

As evidence, he pointed to the title of a 1977 book by David Leon Chandler that explored the South’s influence in Washington.

“It’s because of what Chandler said: ‘The Natural Superiority of Southern Politicians,’ ” Lott said, grinning.

Notable past Southern lawmakers

  • Sen. Russell Long, D-La.: Served from 1948 to 1987, including 16 years as Senate Finance Committee chairman.

  • Rep. Wilbur Mills, D-Ark.: Served from 1939 to 1977, including 18 years as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

  • Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga.: Served from 1933 to 1971, including 16 years as chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee.

  • Rep. Howard Smith, D-Va.: Served from 1931 to 1967, including 12 years as chairman of the House Rules Committee.

  • John Sparkman, D-Ala.: Served in House from 1937 to 1946 and in Senate from 1946 to 1979, including 18 years as chairman of Small Business Committee.

  • Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss.: Served from 1941 to 1995, including 14 years as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

    The Associated Press

    Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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