The following is an excellent excerpt from the book “ACT OF CONGRESS: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t” by Robert G. Kaiser from the Preface on page xiv and I quote: “In 1977 I became the [Washington] Post’s Senate correspondent, a job that gave me a wonderful education. My most memorable experience was a trip to Louisiana in 1979 with Senator Russell B. Long, the son of Huey (“The Kingfish”) Long, one of the most gifted American politicians of the New Deal era. Huey Long was a faker and demagogue but also a talented exploiter of the populist sentiments provoked by the Great Depression. He was a genuine radical who served as governor of Louisiana and then as a senator for three years, until he was assassinated by a relative of a political opponent in 1935. Russell was seventeen at the time.
When we traveled together in July 1979, Russell Long was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the Senate’s equivalent of Ways and Means. He was famous for his brainpower and his aphorisms. One of the best was his definition of tax reform: “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree!” I had covered Long extensively, but never had the chance to talk to him at length until that trip. We spent several days together—Long and I and Henry Heltz, a retired Louisiana policeman who drove the senator around the state in a white Mercury sedan.
The high point of our travels was a visit to the town of Tioga in the center of the state. Tioga is home to the summer encampment of the United Pentecostal Church. Thousands of the faithful gather every summer in a giant tabernacle, the size of two football fields, tucked among groves of towering pines. They worship, sing, pray, often speaking in tongues, and listen to the exhortations of many preachers. The worshippers seemed intent on spiritual redemption, but Long’s interest was political. These people vote as a bloc, he told me, and vote the way their leaders tell them to.
Soon after we had joined the throng, the Reverend T.F. Tenney, the church’s leader, announced that “the featured ones here tonight are Jesus Christ and then Russell Long.” Murmurs of approval followed.
Now it was Long’s turn to speak from the pulpit: “Many of you knew my father. I’ve tried to follow along in his tradition. But I regret to say there’s been a lot of mistakes made in Washington. . . . Some of those decisions of that Supreme Court have been very misguided decisions. It leads me to wonder whether those justices start their sessions the way we do in the United States Senate—with a prayer.” Now the murmurs became loud amens, punctuated with applause. “I want to make a little contribution,” Long continued, “so there won’t be any doubt how I feel about the matter—the fine job you’re doing here. It may not be much, but it’s the largest contribution I’ve made at any one time.”
He handed a check to the bespectacled, round-cheeked Reverend Tenney, who was obviously delighted. He held it up to the crowd. “I have a check here signed by Russell B. Long on the American Bank in Baton Rouge for $5,000,” he announced. The tabernacle filled with high-pitched groans of appreciation. “Praise the Lord!” Reverend Tenney said. Then, after a theatrical pause, he turned to Long and asked, “When are you running again?” Reverend Tenney led the crowd in laughter at his own joke. But it wasn’t a joke. Long would be on the ballot a year later. The last time he’d visited the tabernacle has been six years earlier, a year before his previous campaign, in 1974. These Pentecostalists were his faithful supporters. He visited them as just another pandering politician.
And yet Russell Long was a serious legislator. He was notorious for the favors he did for the oil and gas industries, both important to the Louisiana economy, but he was also the author and principal defender of the Earned Income Tax Credit, one of the governments’ least appreciated and most important programs to help the working poor, supported by both parties. Thanks to Long, low-income workers in the United States don’t pay any income tax, and can receive money back from the Treasury through this tax credit—today about $6,000 a year for a family with three children. Benefits from the program add up to tens of billions a year. Huey Long would have approved.
It was easy to poke fun at Russell Long, and at Wilbur Mills; easy too to be cynical about their motives and behavior. But they taught a more complicated lesson: The same politician can combine admirable qualities with dreadful ones, can demonstrate both pathetic human frailty and a keen interest in helping ordinary people, sometimes courageously, in the course of a career, or even the course of a week on Capitol Hill.
Congress is more than its colorful characters, who in fact have always represented a small minority of the membership. Congress is a system and a culture. It is a wonderful laboratory in which to pursue one of the reporter’s favorite questions: How does it work?
I realized this during the biggest story I covered during my years assigned to the Senate—the ratification of the Panama Canal treaties. Now largely forgotten, for a few years in the1970s there was no bigger political issue in America than the Panama Canal. The two treaties, negotiated over six months in 1977, would slowly relinquish American control of the canal, built by the United States in the early twentieth century to Panama, while committing Panama to remain neutral forever and guarantee access to the canal to ships of all nations.
The treaties provoked sharp controversy. Conservative Republicans saw giving up the canal as a sign of American weakness. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Ronald Reagan, who first ran for president in 1976, were leaders of a popular movement to hold on to the canal, a symbol of Yankee imperialism throughout Latin America, but to those conservatives a proud American accomplishment and asset. Proponents of the treaties argued that they were a proper acknowledgment that the United States had no right to claim Panamanian territory—which we had done, in effect, by ruling the Panama Canal Zone unilaterally for seventy-five years. Returning the canal to Panama would help our diplomacy in Latin America, treaty supporters said, and put the United States on the right side of history.
Ratifying treaties, the founders decided long ago, requires two-thirds approval in the Senate—sixty-seven votes. The first head counts taken by Senate leaders early in 1978 showed at least thirty strong no votes, and perhaps more. The outcome would be close.
The Senate debate on the treaties dragged on for two months. Many members behaved like buffoons—no surprise, but startling to see at close range in such an important debate. But some also showed signs of nobility. The best, I thought, was Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, the Republican leader, who led a deeply divided Republican caucus. At least two dozen of the thirty-eight Senate Republicans were die-hard opponents of ratification. Baker has presidential ambitions for 1980 and knew conservatives viewed him warily, but nevertheless decided to support the treaties, provided they were modified slightly. This, Baker told me privately, was the right thing to do, though he knew it could cost him dearly in the political arena. In fact it probably ended his career.
Sixty-eight senators—one more than needed—voted to ratify each of the two treaties. Just enough members of both parties were afraid to take responsibility for sabotaging a treaty that President Jimmy Carter and his senior diplomats said was of vital importance to the United States in its Latin American backyard. Courage—particularly Baker’s courage—was a necessary ingredient, but fear probably influenced more votes.
These stories and others like them had fed my fascination with the Congress, and taught me that on Capitol Hill reality was elusive. I hoped that this time, with the unusual access I had been granted, I might finally get inside the legislative process and explain the reality—explain how the modern Congress works. I spent two years reporting this story, and conducted hundreds of interviews. Besides Dodd and Frank, a dozen key members of both houses, from both parties, agreed to talk with me repeatedly while the legislation was pending.
Ultimately, Dodd and Frank were able to construct and pass one of the most ambitious pieces of legislation that Congress has enacted in many years, a bill now named for both of them–”Dodd-Frank.” But its final contents were uncertain for months, and important matters were resolved only in the wee hours of June 25, 2010, by the senators and House members who took part in the special conference committee empowered to reconcile differences between the similar bills passed earlier by House and Senate. Many years of experience had not prepared me for the intricacy, the improvisations, the difficulty, or the drama involved in passing this big bill.
Dodd-Frank is full of imperfections–”no bill is ever perfect,” as Senator Dodd put it. Its principal authors revealed their own imperfections as they steered their versions of regulatory reform toward final passage. Their huge “piece of legislation,” as new laws are called on Capitol Hill, will have unintended consequences—every big bill does. The effects of many of its provisions won’t be known until regulatory agencies write and apply “rules” under which they will enforce the law. Those rules will be challenged in court and altered in practice. Eventually Dodd-Frank will be amended by additional legislation. Only the next big financial crisis will fully test the new law, if it remains in effect when that crisis arrives. In Washington, nothing is forever, no argument is ever finally resolved.
This book is about the process that produced the bill. My hope is that these pages will explain the essence of a vitally important American institution.”
(THE AUTHOR OF THIS BOOK WROTE WITH THE PURPOSE OF TELLING YOU JUST WHAT IT TOOK TO PASS THE DODD-FRANK BILL ON FINANCIAL REFORM. THIS WOULDN’T HAVE HAD TO TAKE PLACE IF IT WASN’T FOR THE FACT THAT THE GOVERNMENT GOT RID OF GLASS-STEAGALL. THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER IS, THIS IS THE WAY THE WEALTHY DO BUSINESS SO THEY CAN MAKE MORE AND MORE MONEY. THE DIFFERENT TACTICS THESE TWO GENTLEMEN USED TO GET IT THROUGH CONGRESS AND SIGNED WERE VIRTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE CONSIDERING THE AMOUNT OF MONEY THE BANKING LOBBY WAS SPENDING TO MAKE SURE IT WAS DEFEATED. YOU CAN EASY UNDERSSTAND WHY THE AUTHOR OF THIS BOOK STARTED OUT IN WRITING ABOUT HUEY LONG WHO WAS A GOVERNOR AND THEN U.S. SENATOR. HIS SON, RUSSELL LONG, LATER BECAME A U.S. SENATOR. HUEY LONG, BY SOME VERSION OF WHAT A TRUE POLITICIAN SHOULD BE, CONSIDERED HIM AS A RASCAL AND COULDN’T BE TRUSTED. BUT WHEN YOU CONSIDER WHO HE WAS RUNNING AGAINST AND THE OBSTACLES HE FACED, HE FOUGHT A BATTLE NOT ANY DIFFERENT THAN WHAT WE’RE FIGHTING TODAY. THAT IS, WHY SHOULDN’T THE RICHEST MILLIONAIRES AND BILLIONAIRES PAY A HIGHER INCOME TAX RATE, BASED ON ABILITY TO PAY TO PAY FOR THE GROWING DEBT WE’RE EXPERIENCING TO RUN A GREAT COUNTRY THAT WE HAVE HERE IN THE UNITED STATES. THE RICH SAY THEY WORK HARDER THAN THE REST OF US, WHICH IS A TOTAL LIE. I DON’T BELIEVE THEY COULD KEEP UP WITH ANY FARMER ON A DAY TO DAY BASIS PHYSICALLY OR EVEN FINANCIALLY BECAUSE I’VE NEVER HEARD OF A FARMER MISPLACING HUGE AMOUNTS OF MONEY AND GETTING BONUSES FOR DOING A MISERABLE JOB OF MANAGING HIS INDUSTRY. I NEVER KNEW OF ANY FARMER HAVING TWO SETS OF BOOKS AND I HOPE THE IRS LOOKS INTO ALL OF THIS REAL BIG MESS THAT’S BEEN GOING ON FOR TOO MANY YEARS.
LaVern Isely, Overtaxed Independent Middle Class Taxpayer & Public Citizen & AARP Members