Whitten: Model-T image disguises budget bulldozer
IN the closing days of September, as the clock runs down on the fiscal year, Congress usually discovers new meanings for the word ``frenzy.'' Months of procrastination and stalemate come to roost in a few weeks of high-intensity politicking. The federal government prepares to shut down. And Jamie Whitten becomes the man to see on Capitol Hill.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Few people have heard of Representative Whitten, and he'd be just as happy to keep it that way. But Mr. Whitten is the most senior member of Congress, having represented Mississippi's First District since 1941.
More important, Whitten is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which writes the bills that enable the federal government to spend the taxpayers' money. And over the next few weeks, he will be one of the more important people in Washington. With partisan standoff characterizing this year's budget saga, Congress has not passed the 13 bills needed to keep the government in operation during the next fiscal year, which begins Thursday. Last week, lawmakers granted themselves a small reprieve by passing legislation that tides the government over through mid-November.
But then more than a half billion dollars' worth of spending bills will likely be wrapped up into a legislative behemoth called a continuing resolution. As in past years, the bill will be hastily assembled by appropriators from the House and Senate - under the unobtrusive but unmistakable supervision of one Jamie Whitten.
``When you have the power to spend money, you have real responsibility,'' Whitten says. And you learn to be discrete about it. For all his standing, Whitten is one of Congress's most invisible members.
Don't look for him on TV. The genteelly rumpled legislator, no creature of the television age, routinely shuns talk-show invitations. ``Some people don't care if they pass any bills so long as they get on TV,'' he scoffs. ``But we've got lots of work to do.''
Don't look for Whitten in the newspapers, either. A Whitten press release is unheard of. He never holds press conferences and rarely grants interviews. And forget about asking the locals in Whitten's home district what they think of him. One recent poll showed that two-thirds of his constituents had never heard of their 24-term congressman - the rest return him to Washington with little opposition.
``He's got the lowest name recognition of any member in the delegation,'' observes Mississippi's Republican senator, Thad Cochran.
Look, instead, for Whitten's hand in the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. The $2 billion, 284-mile canal snakes through his district to the Gulf of Mexico. The project faced an army of critics. But Whitten got the job done anyway, in part by arranging work to start first at both ends; when the inevitable budget crunch came, he was able to argue that it would have been silly not to join the sections already completed.
``That thing never would have been built if it weren't for Jamie,'' marvels John Leslie, mayor of Oxford, Miss.
Or look for Whitten's fingerprints all over United States agriculture policy. In 1949, he became chairman of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Appropriations - the committee that provides funding for nearly every federal farm program.
Since then, Whitten has developed a virtual fiefdom in the federal bureaucracy. He has outpoliticked and outlasted so many of the bureaucrats who have appeared before his committee that people call him ``the permanent secretary of agriculture,'' even to his face.
``There's no use trying to outmaneuver him,'' sighs Robert Bergland, secretary of agriculture in the Carter administration. ``He'll just blow you away.''
And look for Whitten's traces in the arcana of House politics. Earlier this month, House Democrats and Senate Republicans were embroiled in another standoff over the federal budget. Republicans wanted Congress to employ tighter accounting procedures when writing the budget before they would go along with a Democratic spending plan that called for major savings in defense and domestic expenditures. But Whitten and his fellow appropriators opposed the changes.
Eventually, the standoff collapsed - of course, the appropriators hadn't budged. ``Whitten and his friends have friends everywhere,'' mutters one senior House Democratic aide.
A glance at Whitten will hint at none of this. The barrel-chested septuagenarian wears loose-fitting clothes and shuffles about the halls of Congress looking, to the uninitiated, like a retiree in search of a checkers match. ``Whitten's the easiest person in the world to underestimate,'' says Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts.
But don't. In many ways, Whitten is the Isaac Stern of the appropriations process - a grand virtuoso in the subtle art of budget manipulation.