Southerners lose clout in Congress

The days of staying in office practically for life and controlling key committees are gone.

Published April 1, 2007

WASHINGTON - When he was in Congress, Rep. Howard "Judge" Smith routinely frustrated the Washington establishment by leaving town when House leaders tried to push bills he did not like through his Rules Committee.

In 1957, the Virginia Democrat blocked President Dwight Eisenhower's civil rights legislation by saying a barn burned on his farm and he needed to tend to it.

At the time, Smith's antics were hardly out of place. Southern politicians wielded near-authoritarian control on Capitol Hill, presiding over committees that wrote tax laws, set federal spending, and steered subsidies to cotton and peanut farmers.

Now, Dixie's heyday in Congress is over. It is rare to find anyone with a Southern accent in a position of power. After the Democratic victories in November, congressional historians say, the region's clout fell to its lowest level in at least 50 years.

Near the end of Smith's tenure in 1965, Southerners headed about two-thirds of the committees in Congress. In the current Congress, no Southern senator is a committee chairman and there are just four in the House - fewer than from California.

Only one Southerner is in the Democratic leadership: House Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina.

"It really is the end of the era," said Christian Grose, a Vanderbilt University professor who studies Southern politics.

One chief reason is the South's shift toward the Republican Party. When Republicans lost control of Congress last year, the region's clout took a hit.

But signs of waning influence already were evident. Through death, retirement and a more competitive environment, the South simply lost the seniority that gave it such outsized influence.

"There was a time when Southerners just got re-elected and re-elected over and over again. You stick around long enough, you get powerful," said former Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin. The onetime Democrat switched parties in the middle of his 24-year House career before retiring in 2004.

"But it's not the old, genteel South anymore. It's a brutal political playing field now," he said.

Dating to the Depression, the South was so dominated by conservative Democrats that lawmakers who behaved reasonably well - and even some who did not - could hold office virtually as long as they wanted.

That political monopoly produced legislators such as Democratic Rep. Jamie Whitten of Mississippi. He became known as the "permanent secretary of agriculture" because he held such a grip over farm spending during a 54-year career.

Democratic Sen. Russell Long was called the "fourth branch of government" for his mastery of tax law during 16 years as Senate Finance Committee chairman.

Committee chairmen held far more power and independence than they do today, and Southerners often made clear their disdain for views from other parts of the country.

In 1972, for example, near the end of a 36-year career, Democratic Rep. Edward Hebert of Louisiana forced two liberals from the West to share a chair for two years because he did not want them on his Armed Services Committee.

Fast Facts:


Notable past Southern lawmakers

- Sen. Russell Long, D-La.: Served from 1948 to 1987, including 16 years as Senate Finance Committee chairman.

- Rep. Wilbur Mills, D-Ark.: Served from 1939 to 1977, including 18 years as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

- Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga.: Served from 1933 to 1971, including 16 years as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

- Rep. Howard Smith, D-Va.: Served from 1931 to 1967, including 12 years as chairman of the House Rules Committee.

- John Sparkman, D-Ala.: Served in House from 1937 to 1946 and in Senate from 1946 to 1979, including 18 years as chairman of the Small Business Committee.

-Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss.: Served from 1941 to 1995, including 14 years as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.