Hill Logjams Will Stub Unwary Toes

July 18, 1992|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover | Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover,Staff Writers

NEW YORK -- Gov. Bill Clinton's plan to use his running mate, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, "to break the logjam in Washington" makes for good political rhetoric, but the doing may be harder than the talking. It always has been.

Ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 chose his agriculture secretary, Henry A. Wallace, to be his vice president when incumbent John Nance Garner balked at FDR's third-term bid, every elected vice president of both parties except one has come directly or indirectly from Congress. And the intent, expressed or not, has always been that he will help put the president's legislative program over on Capitol Hill.

The one exception was Spiro T. Agnew, as governor of Maryland the surprise selection of 1968 Republican presidential nominee Richard M. Nixon. Mr. Agnew, a stranger to the inner workings of Congress, set out diligently to play the role of chief legislative lobbyist in the new Nixon administration but had his wings clipped.

For the first two months of his vice presidency, Mr. Agnew presided daily over the Senate, fulfilling his one constitutional role beyond awaiting the death or disability of the man in the White House. Tradition dictated that this routine chore be handled by a very junior senator unless the president of the Senate was obliged to break a tie vote. But Mr. Agnew dutifully logged in more hours in the chair than any previous vice president except President Harry S. Truman's man, Alben W. Barkley of Kentucky. Mr. Barkley had used the time to write love letters to the woman he later married.

Mr. Agnew, in his eagerness to be an effective player for the Nixon team, took to personally buttonholing Republican senators advance of key votes, thus violating another tradition: that vice presidents, as members of the executive branch, do not enter directly into the legislative arena.

Concerning one bill, he approached Sen. Len Jordan of Idaho and asked: "Do we have your vote?" Mr. Jordan shot back: "You did until now." Mr. Agnew stopped asking for votes, and he was seen less and less in the presiding officer's chair.

This little episode does not mean that Mr. Gore, if elected vice president, could not be effective in helping to advance Mr. Clinton'sprogram through Congress in the first 100 days, as Mr. Clinton has said he hopes to do to break the Washington gridlock that has prevailed under Republican President Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Other vice presidents, notably Lyndon B. Johnson for President John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey for LBJ, were strong legislative lobbyists for their administrations behind the scenes in the Senate. They knew all the players of both parties and were respected by most of them. But even Mr. Johnson found that a vice president could go too far in attempting to assert executive branch influence on the legislative branch.

When he left the job of Senate majority leader in 1961 to become vice president, Mr. Johnson moved to retain some of his power by asking his old Democratic colleagues in the Senate to permit him to preside over their caucus. They reluctantly voted to let him do so but were so grudging -- with 17 voting against him -- that he recognized he was being rebuffed. He gaveled open the next caucus meeting and then withdrew, never to return.

When the 1976 Democratic presidential nominee, Washingtonoutsider Jimmy Carter, chose Sen. Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota as his running mate, like Mr. Clinton in selecting Mr. Gore, he looked to Mr. Mondale to fill the most glaring gap in his own political resume. Mr. Mondale was an effective lobbyist on certain pieces of legislation but was always aware of the limits of tradition and influence on a vice president in dealing with Congress.

George Bush's choice of then-Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana as his running mate gave Mr. Bush, who had served only four years in the House before taking on a number of executive branch jobs, a potential helpmate on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Quayle at first proclaimed that he would spend a major portion of his time on the Hill, taking an active role as president of the Senate. Warning flags immediately went up, however, when it was recognized he would be crowding the strong-willed Senate Republican leader, Bob Dole of Kansas, and the idea was dropped.

As a veteran of 16 years in the House and Senate, Mr. Gore may be able to avoid the mistakes of past vice presidents who have stubbed their toes trying to play lobbyist toward Congress. If so, he will have to bear in mind what happened to Mr. Agnew.

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