Socialism: A look back …

I began Chapter 22 of JACKHAMMERED, my memoir, with a quote from President John F. Kennedy:

“When we got into office, the thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we’d been saying they were.”

I agreed with Kennedy, and my thoughts from forty years ago give perspective to much of what is being discussed today. Here is what I wrote in the chapter I titled “First Days, First Issues.”

On the day that I took the oath of office, my mother was in the gallery alongside Lana, Paige, and Sam. I wish my father could have been there, but I am sure he was beaming as he looked down from Heaven. I sat next to John Paul Hammerschmidt, on the second row from the front, in the seat by the center aisle that divides the House. We took the oath of office and then voted to select the speaker of the House. I voted for John Rhodes of Arizona, our nominee. We only had 176 members in our Republican caucus, so John lost to Tip O’Neil of Massachusetts. It was my first lesson on the importance of party control. The Democrats were in control of the House, and I was a member of the minority party.

I could never chair a committee meeting until we, the Republicans, managed to elect at least 218 members out of the 435 members of the House. The Democrats would control the agenda. In the House of Representatives—unlike the Senate—there is no right to filibuster and the Rules Committee can limit the right to offer amendments. That makes it difficult to accomplish anything if you are a member of the minority party.
I held an open house in my office in the Longworth Building after the swearing-in ceremonies. Former Congressman Wilbur Mills came by to pay his respects. That to me was a high honor. He had fallen from grace, but he was a legend for the good work he had done as the longtime chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. We were in different political parties, but as fellow Arkansans, and fellow White Countians, Wilbur and I struck up a friendship. We visited frequently because he was always in or near the Ways and Means Committee room that was on the first floor of my office building, the Longworth. The most memorable conversation I had with Wilbur Mills took place in the first month of my first term. He was lamenting the notorious episode with Fanne Foxe that was his undoing and told me to watch out for four things: money, booze, women, and power. It was sage advice that I have passed on to countless young politicians. We remained friends until his death in 1992.

Shortly after my open house, we attended a gala event at the Kennedy Center. J. William Fulbright, who served Arkansas as our United States senator from 1945 to 1975, was on the Kennedy Center Board of Directors and when we came to him in the receiving line, he beamed. I was surprised that he recognized me, but perhaps a staff member tipped him off. Then, Senator Fulbright got out of the receiving line and led Lana and me around the room introducing us to his many friends. Each time he introduced us he said the same thing, “This is my friend, Ed Bethune and his wife. He is a new congressman from Arkansas.” Then he paused for dramatic effect and added in a louder, slightly incredulous voice, “And, he is a Republican.” After each introduction the senator would chortle and pose theatrically until he approached the next friend, then he repeated the process word for word, inflection for inflection. Eventually, I got as big a kick out of it as he did.

I also met former Arkansas Congressman Brooks Hays in my first week as a member of Congress. He was a delightful man who distinguished himself during the 1957 school integration crisis in Little Rock by trying to find a way to moderate the crisis. A segregationist opponent twisted what Brooks was trying to do and defeated him with a write-in campaign. Brooks Hays loved the House of Representatives and after he lost his seat, he co-founded the United States Association of Former Members of Congress, a nonpartisan, educational organization chartered by the United States Congress. The organization originally began as an alumni organization to keep former members connected on a social basis, but it now offers several important domestic and international educational programs. Brooks referred to his wife, Marion, as “Little Manager,” and he began all of his speeches with an admonition to himself to adhere to a directive he attributed to her, “Don’t overegg the pudding.” He also founded the Close Up Foundation, an organization that brings high school kids to Washington, D. C. to learn about government. He died in 1981.

In 1949 fifteen young Republican members of the House, including Richard Nixon of California, formed a small group that they later named, The Chowder and Marching Society. The founders of C&M were opposed to monthly bonuses for war veterans, which they considered too costly, so they started meeting once a week to discuss their plan to block the legislation. The men soon realized that the meetings welded them together as friends, not just fellow politicians. To enlarge and perpetuate C&M they selected, after each election, two newly elected congressmen to join the group. In time, the organization became a power matrix that produced two presidents, several governors and senators, and many leaders of the House of Representatives. C&M has never had a formal structure—no bylaws, no rules, and no officers. It exists spontaneously. It was an honor that the members asked me to join the group in 1978, and I have faithfully attended the weekly meetings since that time. Nowadays, C&M meets in the Capitol every Wednesday night with an active member of the House serving as host. It is a great way to maintain friendships and keep up with what fellow members are trying to accomplish.

I had barely settled in as a new congressman when thousands of farmers converged on Washington from four directions. On the morning of February 5, 1979, there were nearly nine hundred tractors and other farm vehicles in the city. The farmers, members of the American Agriculture Movement were belligerent because many were losing their farms. They refused to park peacefully at a local stadium, and they were tying up traffic. Finally, the police confined them to the Mall area. Many members refused to meet with the farmers, but all the members of the Arkansas delegation showed up for a hostile meeting in the Senate Caucus Room. Beryl Anthony and I had it the easiest since we had just arrived as newly elected members, but the farmers gave the other members of the delegation a hard time. Our two senators and Congressman Hammerschmidt were courteous listeners but Congressman Bill Alexander gave as good as he got. He chewed the farmers out for messing up the Mall and told them they were hurting their own cause. I was impressed with his show of political courage and when I saw him in the House gymnasium later that day, I told him so.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is a political organization dedicated to electing Republicans to Congress. The Democrats have a comparable organization, and both spend a lot of time teaching newly elected members the art and science of winning re-election. Through orientation sessions and mentoring arrangements, the parties urge new members to issue endless press releases, newsletters, and other communications to insure re-election. These mailings are free of postage under the congressional franking privilege. The quintessential advice is that a new member should go home each weekend during the first term to be sure that constituents get a good first impression. The incessant focus on re-election, and how to engineer it turned me off. I had an irreverent notion that we ought to focus on substance, not politics. Nevertheless, I did work hard in my first year, and I did go home every weekend. At the end of my first year, a friend came up to me after I made a speech to students at Catholic High School in Little Rock and told me that I needed to get some rest and lose some weight. He was right. I embarked on an exercise program that included going to the gym early each morning and then running a couple of miles on the Mall. My friend’s simple advice was better than all the political advice I got about how to win re-election.

The House of Representatives reflects the country. The people are not looking for angels to represent them. They want their congressional representatives to be honest, and they want them to work hard and do the right thing.

There will always be one or two rotten apples in the barrel; nevertheless, I was thoroughly impressed with most of the Democrat and Republican members I met when I got to Congress. They were well-educated; many were from Ivy League and other prestigious schools. Some had served in high political office. Dick Cheney, for instance, was President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff and Claude Pepper, a Florida Democrat, had served in the U. S. Senate.

To be perfectly honest, I was slightly intimidated when I first arrived. I did not know as much as I needed to about the various bureaus and departments of government, and I had no previous legislative experience. I wondered if I could play in that league, but after a few weeks, I realized that I had unique skills and experience that others did not have. Congress, by design, is a diverse body that profits from the uniqueness of its members. From that time forward, I gorged myself with information. I read constantly—on the airplane, in bed, on the House floor, and in my office. I asked my new colleagues to recommend their favorite authors and wound up reading several books that influenced me greatly. My study did not change my basic philosophy, but it did provide a deeper and better understanding of the conservative principles that had settled into my head since childhood.

The first two books I read in 1979 challenged me to compare the planned economy advocated by socialists with the free market economy of capitalism. Michael Harrington, a noted socialist, argued in his book, Twilight of Capitalism that the United States was headed to socialism and we could do nothing about it. Bill Simon, a conservative and former Treasury secretary, used the same facts as Harrington and agreed with him that the United States was doomed to be a socialist nation. However, in his book A Time for Truth, Simon said we could stop the slide to socialism if we were willing to stop deficit spending, get control of our national debt, and stop creating new entitlement programs. The dilemma framed by Harrington and Simon is still unresolved.

I read works by Eric Hoffer, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Hannah Arendt, Norman Podhoretz, Milton Freidman, and many others. My thirst was unquenchable. Someone said that each year spent as a member of Congress is equivalent to getting a master’s degree, and I agree with that.

My consternation over the Harrington-Simon dilemma came to full bloom in early 1979, shortly after I became a member of what is now the Financial Services Committee. The Chrysler Corporation was in serious financial trouble, contemplating bankruptcy, and there was a move afoot to get a $1.5 billion federal bailout. Lee Iacocca, the Chrysler CEO, argued that he could fix the company and that all the stakeholders—unions, shareholders, banks, and dealers—were willing to share the sacrifices necessary for the survival of the company. The bailout, in the form of loan guarantees, was coming just three years after the federal government had bailed out New York City. I was appalled at the idea of bailouts. Cities, states, and private companies should solve their own fiscal problems. Bailouts, in my judgment, do not lead to efficiency or profitability; they only lead to more bailouts. The Chrysler bailout went through. Chrysler repaid the loans in 1983, but in 2009, the company (along with other car-makers, and several financial service companies) was back before Congress asking for another bailout at a time when the national debt was nearing $13 trillion. I am convinced I took the right stand, but my decision to stand on principle led to my discovery of a larger problem. Many, in fact most congressional representatives believed loan guarantees are cost-free and have no impact on the deficit, the national debt, or the economy.

I began to study the lending practices of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and a host of other agencies that used the federal loan guarantee concept to create low-interest loans. Congress authorized such programs with no regard for how such favoritism might affect the allocation of credit or the national economy. I introduced a bill that would require Congress to pass a “credit budget” as well as the customary tax-and-spend budget and I repeatedly offered amendments to cut the guarantees for REA, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac. My efforts were not popular. On one occasion, Majority Leader Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, and Congressman Bill Alexander, an Arkansas Democrat, challenged my thesis in a vigorous debate with me on the floor of the House. Wright said, “Loan guarantees are cost-free.” I responded by saying, “If that is so then let’s give low interest loans to all Americans.” Bill Alexander hammered my amendment to cut the REA subsidy by saying, “The gentleman is trying to turn out the lights in rural Arkansas.” The harder I fought the more I discovered that almost no one in Congress or the government cared about the credit issue. There was a sense that government could do whatever it wished to do with loan guarantees and low interest rates for favored constituencies. My bill to establish a credit budget and thus force Congress and the executive branch to consider the economic impact of such programs never passed the House. The Arkansas Democrat editorialized in favor of my credit budget, calling it “Bethune’s Baby.” If it had become law, our nation might have averted the great credit problems that surfaced for all to see in late 2008.

My conservatism and refusal to want to take anything from “them” also led me to refuse to take the obscene retirement benefit that was available for members of Congress. This, coupled with my refusal to take a pay increase for members of Congress that passed in my first term, caused me some heartburn at home. Lana was keeping the family checkbook and we were having a hard time living on the $65,000 per year salary, not to mention that we were not saving much for college expenses that were right around the corner. The decision to reject the retirement program was a good one in my mind, but I left millions of dollars, literally, on the table.

In 1979, America was suffering a nationwide gasoline shortage that stemmed from federal controls on oil and adverse international developments, not the least of which was the fall of the Shah of Iran. Long lines formed at service stations. People were furious. They demanded federal action to fix the problem, and that triggered a yearlong debate about energy policy that produced several bad ideas. Congress passed and President Carter signed a law creating the Synfuels Corporation, an ill-starred plan to make synthetic fuels. Congress also tried to pass a gas-rationing plan like the rationing plans used in World War II, but cooler heads prevailed, and the rationing idea was limited to the preparation of an emergency rationing plan. President Carter put solar panels on the roof of the White House and a wood-burning stove in his living quarters. He also ordered all government agencies to turn down thermostats to conserve energy. Congress, at the president’s insistence, also imposed a windfall profit tax on oil companies to show its willingness to punish someone for the shortages. Taken together, the policies proved the incompetence of government, but did little to improve supplies of energy.

I conducted a series of town hall meetings throughout the Second District of Arkansas all during the gasoline crisis. My constituents were universal in the belief that we should all practice energy conservation as best we could. That is when I decided I needed to lead by example. I sold Lana’s gas-guzzling Lincoln Town Car and bought a Plymouth Arrow, a lightweight two-door sedan.

Lana eventually forgave me for my decision to turn down the retirement benefits and the congressional pay increases, but she has never forgiven me for selling her gold, 1974 Lincoln Continental Town Car, the one I bought for her when my law practice took off in 1973.