FORMER Rep. Otto Passman died a short time ago in Louisiana. To a host of former officials in the foreign affairs agencies of the US government, he will be remembered as the man who ruled foreign aid for more than 20 years in the Congress - from 1954 until 1976. But the practices of Mr. Passman, unique character that he was, demonstrated at least one method of pursuing unpopular legislation on Capitol Hill. Passman, although chairman of the subcommittee responsible for foreign assistance appropriations, established himself as an outspoken, caustic foe of foreign assistance. Stories from those who appeared before him as witnesses supporting foreign aid requests are legion. When he presided over hearings, he was constantly twisting and turning nervously in his chair. An aide once remarked that ``Otto Passman was the only man in the Congress to wear out his suits from the inside.'' He reserved his greatest nervous energy to intimidate the bureaucratic witnesses before his committee. On one occasion, when I was supporting a foreign aid request for Africa, I recall his saying to me, ``Foreign aid is the worst disaster to hit the Republic since the War of 1812. Now you, Mr. Newsom, probably agree with me, but you have your foot in the public trough and can't say so.''
Foreign aid has never been very popular in the Congress and was not then. But, with such statements, Passman established that he agreed with his colleagues that it was a bad idea, and nevertheless, that his was a necessary task. When he took the bill each year to manage the fight on the House floor, he could persuade his colleagues that he had bested the bureaucrats and had squeezed as much out of the bill as possible. The result was that he consistently got House approval of a foreign aid bill, although the dollar level was usually well below administration requests.
Passman knew his facts, and had a remarkable memory. If an aid agency official stated, for example, that a project was not completed, Passman would say, ``But, as you will note on page [giving the specific reference] of last year's hearings, you assured the committee that the project would be completed by this year.''
Passman also knew the answers he wanted to the questions he posed. He sat in the committee chair with a sheaf of papers that had both the questions and the expected answer. If the right answer was given, he would make a check and lay the sheet aside. If it was not, he would grill the witness until the answer he wanted appeared or until the witness agreed to provide further information in writing.
He did not brook arguments in his committee sessions. I recall disputing a statement of his that the United States had never been the recipient of foreign aid by pointing out that our country had built part of the West on favorable loans from Europe. He made it clear he thought the remark inaccurate and unpatriotic.
I am not sure that witnesses ever knew Passman's true feelings about foreign aid. He claimed his tactics were necessary to obtain the passage of unpopular legislation. He was not, however, against all foreign aid. He was a strong supporter of two aid recipients: the American University of Beirut and the government of the Republic of China on Taiwan.
The Passmans and those of like dominance and disposition have largely disappeared from the Hill. Congressional reforms in the 1970s reduced their power. Some contend that the loss of such figures has made the legislative process less manageable. They say that, as intimidating and at times as rude as he could be toward witnesses from the executive branch, he recognized how an unpopular act such as foreign aid could be pushed through the House. They point to the difficulties recent administrations have had in obtaining any congressional authority for foreign assistance.
Foreign assistance remains an unpopular program in the Congress. Perhaps it requires a Passman to persuade reluctant legislators to approve it. For those of us who appeared before him, however, it is difficult to acknowledge that only through such a negative approach can this nation maintain a significant foreign aid program.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.