Whitten: Model-T image disguises budget bulldozer
Washington — 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.
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.
``Whitten's secret is that he actually reads those bills,'' says Rep. Leon Panetta (D) of California. And he uses that knowledge to shape appropriations bills in all kinds of subtle but important ways. Whitten is famous for shifting defense dollars into agricultural and energy-related projects or transferring money from slow-spending programs to programs that spend money right away. Another Whitten favorite is to underfund certain programs - that way, when the administration comes back midyear and asks for more money, the appropriators get a chance to write a new bill and meddle some more.
And Whitten likes to take matters into his own hands, literally. Sometimes during committee sessions, he'll just grab a pencil and scribble amendments into the margins of the bill everybody's been working on, explaining the changes to his colleagues in a concatenation of half-enunciated syllables. They may look confused, but they vote ``yes'' anyway.
Whitten's mangled syntax and mud-thick Mississippi drawl are trademarks. So is his marbles-in-the-mouth diction, which, when convenient, degenerates into unintelligibility. ``No one knows how to mumble an amendment past everyone like Jamie,'' says Rep. Silvio Conte of Massachusetts, the committee's top Republican.
Not everyone appreciates the wiliness: Former Rep. Phil Burton, a top member of the Democratic leadership at his retirement in 1982, calls Whitten ``one big puddle of sneak.'' But Whitten shrugs off the barbs: ``I'm just trying to get the job done.''
Whitten is in a unique position to get the job done. The House and Senate Budget Committees haggle over spending priorities. But it is the appropriators who transform tentative figures into cash commitments. That puts the appropriators in the enviable position of being able to make sure that their districts get a piece of the federal pie. Whitten's district may get the biggest slice.
It might not be fair to call Whitten the premier porker of Congress, but few spread the federal fat with such abandon. His district is a veritable cornucopia of federal largess. In one constituent newsletter, Whitten reported that he had delivered nearly 2,000 projects to his district during the Carter years alone, pumping well over a billion dollars into the local economy.
``He makes sure we get a bit of everything that comes down the pike,'' says Mayor Leslie. Recently, there's been an $11 million acoustics lab for Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi), a watershed protection and flood-control project for the foothills of the Mississippi delta, and four federally financed lanes for US 72.
Whitten does not hog everything for his district, either. Dams, roads, and bridges - projects members love to bring home - are coins of the congressional realm, the preferred medium for making deals and maintaining a power base.
``Texas, California, Arkansas, Illinois - I haven't just kept everything for Mississippi,'' he says, seated in an upholstered leather chair behind a desk buried under a mound of documents. His office, an ornate affair 30 paces from the House chamber, has been the home of the Appropriations Committee for the last century. ``I do what I can for whomever I can.''
Don't preach to Whitten about pork. ``Pork,'' he chortles, eyes atwinkle, ``is what's in the other fellow's district.'' Instead, Whitten speaks of infrastructure and federal assistance with a reverence others reserve for less tangible things, like motherhood. ``Since we started federal programs where the federal government started to meet local needs in 1934, our wealth increased 41 times,'' he says. ``Throwing the weight of your federal government against local problems is what's made this country.''
Still, it is getting harder to fill everyone's wish list, what with those huge annual deficits to worry about. And the big-spending projects favored by old-time New Dealers like Whitten are running into stiff resistance from a new breed of parsimonious lawmakers - relative newcomers seeking to scrutinize every spending bill for fiscal irresponsibility.
To Whitten those efforts are misplaced: The country's real wealth, he insists, lies in the things that are built; money and deficits are secondary concerns. ``Folks confuse their paper money with their real wealth,'' Whitten lectures.
Increasingly, however, Whitten's is a minority view. ``There's a sea change taking place in the House,'' says Rep. Buddy MacKay (D) of Florida, who led a self-styled ``meat-ax'' group this year in an unprecedented and sometimes successful effort to cut down the Appropriations Committee's bills.
Whitten is clearly swimming against the tide, operating as best he can in the manner of his free-spending predecessors. ``He's a pure product of the New Deal,'' Representative Frank says admiringly. One year older than Ronald Reagan, Whitten shows no signs of retiring. In the meantime, he is making an uncomfortable adjustment to the economic realities of the new age. ``Watch him now,'' says one senior House Democrat. ``He is the last of his kind.''