• U.S.

The Congress: Sleight of Hand

4 minute read

In a presto-chango piece of political legerdemain, President Kennedy last week sought to turn a humiliating legislative defeat into a campaign issue that could embarrass the Republican Party throughout election year 1962.

Up before the powerful House Rules Committee was the President’s proposal to create a Cabinet-level Department of Urban Affairs and Housing. It simply was not in the cards for Rules to approve the bill and send it on to the House floor. The committee’s five Republicans, backed by a resolution adopted by the House G.O.P. policy committee, were all against the idea as a needless enlargement of the federal bureaucracy. Four Southern Democrats, led by Chairman Howard Smith of Virginia, had a special objection: it was common knowledge that President Kennedy planned to name Robert C. Weaver. 54, the able Negro head of the Housing and Home Finance Agency, as his first Secretary of Urban Affairs and Housing.

As he was about to enter his news conference last week. President Kennedy heard that the Rules Committee had voted 9 to 6 against the bill. In his first words to reporters he placed the whole political onus on the Republicans, ignoring the key part that the Southern Democrats had played in the defeat. “I am somewhat astonished,” he said, “at the Republican leadership, which opposed this bill. I had gotten the impression that they shared our concern for more effective management and responsibility of the problems of two-thirds of our population who live in cities.”

Then he announced that he would go ahead and establish the new department anyway—under the powers granted him by the Reorganization Act of 1949. That act gave the President the right to transfer, abolish or consolidate—and in effect, create—any agency in the Executive branch simply by submitting a plan—subject only to veto within 60 days by a majority vote of either the House or the Senate. And to make sure that no body missed the other point, Kennedy confirmed his intention to name Weaver as the new department’s head. (Such an announcement, severely noted the New York Times’s Arthur Krock, “is rare if not original in cases where a post does not exist.”)

The President’s action was carefully calculated to put the G.O.P. on a spot. Democratic reasoning was obvious: a party-line Republican vote against the department, on the House or Senate floor, could be billed as an affront to city dwellers and Negroes alike—and no Congressman from a big urban district could afford to take such a chance in an election year. Yet there was nothing to prevent the big-city Republicans from voting for the Department of Urban Affairs. If the Kennedy Administration got its new Cabinet office, it would indeed become an election-year prize. But then the urban Republicans could point with equal pride to the fact that the department had been created by the leave, and through the votes, of Republican Congressmen.

In other Capitol Hill action last week:

>The House approved and sent to the Senate an increase of $790 million in postal rates—raising the price of first-class letters to 5¢, and airmail to 8¢, imposing $53,400,000 in new rates on second-class mail (the Magazine Publishers Association predicted that many magazines and newspapers would be forced out of business by the new rates), and increasing the price of third-class mail from 1¢ to 3½¢. Urged by the Administration as a budget-balancing necessity, much of the new revenue from the higher rates would probably be consumed by jumps in the wages of Post Office employees.

> Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana introduced a bill that would prohibit the “arbitrary” use of the literacy tests required for voting privileges. Under the bill, Puerto Ricans would no longer be required to know English in order to vote—provided they had at least a sixth-grade education in Spanish—and Southern states would not be able to prevent Negroes from voting by asking them to “interpret” the Constitution. Administration strategists gave the bill a “reasonably good” chance of passage.

> The House Ways and Means Committee approved a measure that would permit the Treasury to impose 20% withholding taxes on dividends and interest from bonds and savings accounts. The bill would presumably enable the Government to recover some $600 million each year in presently unreported dividends and interest.

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