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Keeper of the rules: Howard W. Smith of Virginia.

Keeper of the Rules: Howard W. Smith of Virginia

Bruce J. Dierenfield. University Press of Virginia, $25. Quick: who is chairman of the Rules Committee in the House of Representatives? Only Congress junkies can answer that question today (Claude Pepper), but a generation ago liberals cursed the Rules Committee and its reactionary chairman, Howard W. Smith of Virginia. The author of this informative biography, Bruce J. Dierenfield, writes that in the fifties Smith was widely regarded as the third most powerful figure in Washington, surpassed only by Dwight D. Eisenhower and House Speaker Sam Rayburn. An ardent segregationist who used his committee to hold up or weaken civil rights legislation, Smith, at the very least, deserves a place next to Bull Connor and the "old' George Wallace in the demonology of the civil rights movement. Instead, he's largely been forgotten, making it all too easy for pundits to get nostalgic about the days when Congress was ruled by a few powerful men.

Trained in the precepts of strict constructionism at the University of Virginia law school, Smith dedicated his public career to fighting the expansion of the federal government. After serving as a judge in Alexandria, he was elected to the House, where he became a leading opponent of FDR's New Deal. He believed that Congress rationalized its intervention in business activity through a misreading of the Constitution's commerce clause; it then abdicated its imagined power to the president, who set up federal agencies to issue regulations that Smith judged illegitimate. (His abhorrence of extending federal power did not keep Smith from sponsoring the activist--and anticommunist-- Smith Act, which led to the prosection of scores of radicals in the late forties.)

Smith's opportunity to wield clout against the expanding federal government came with his ascent to Rules chairman in 1954. Created in 1789, Rules was for a century an inconsequential committee charged with perpetuating old procedural rules. But at the end of the 19th century, the congressional leadership beefed up its powers to counter special interests and promote the will of the majority on tax and tariff bills. Through the twenties, Rules served to strengthen the hand of whichever party controlled the House. During the Roosevelt administration, however, it became a means for a dissident coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats to gum up the system. Smith's committee could determine when a bill would be sent to the floor, whether it would be accompanied by open debate, and whether it could be subjected to an unlimited number of amendments. Up to a point, it could even keep a bill from coming to the floor.

When the 1957 civil rights bill came before his committee, Smith sided with his state's most ardent segregationists (who included James J. Kilpatrick, then editor of the Richmond News Leader). "The Southern people have never accepted the colored race as a race of people who had equal intelligence . . . as the white people of the South,' said Smith. To stop the bill, he employed a variety of delaying tactics, including simply leaving town for ten days. The Civil Rights Act that finally passed established an important precedent, but was so weak that it had to be followed up with another civil rights bill in 1964. On that go-round, Smith attached an amendment outlawing sex discrimination --a proposition so seemingly ridiculous that Smith believed it would never be adopted by Congress. But it was.

That defeat demonstrated that Smith couldn't stop the enfranchisement of either blacks or women. A key reason was that Smith's obstructionism had provoked a congressional revolt in which Rules was packed with more liberal members. The committee was further weakened by a variety of procedural reforms in the mid-1970s, that weakened the seniority system. The legacy of these reforms--which Dierenfield, maddeningly, fails to discuss--is that Congress today is more decentralized, offering special interests a multitude of avenue to coopt legislation. Enemies of special-interest politics occasionally argue that Congress should reimpose discipline by restoring power to key senior committee chairmen. But Dierenfield's book is a reminder that congressional fief-doms like Rules were themselves captives of special interests. Isn't there a better solution to special-interest gridlock than a return to the system that gave us Howard Smith?
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Copyright 1987, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Noah, Timothy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1987
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