The Marshall Plan. The Civil Rights Act. Social Security reform. Some of the most momentous pieces of legislation in modern times were close calls in Congress. Each of these three required bold leadership from the House speaker — and all the speakers were from Massachusetts.
The current Congress is one of the least effective and most vilified ever. Yet there are signs of hope, notably Speaker John Boehner’s efforts to rally support for immigration reform from reluctant conservative Republicans.
Perhaps some lessons can be drawn from the actions of Joseph W. Martin Jr., John W. McCormack, and Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr., all of whom — a Republican and two Democrats — got their party members to agree to controversial measures that were in the national interest. These profiles in courage in the House virtually define congressional leadership.
One thread uniting these profiles is that, seen properly, national interests and partisan interests may be more closely aligned than often seems the case today. To serve their country, and to protect their party over the long term, leaders sometimes need to risk alienating ideological purists within their own party.
Another lesson from the Massachusetts speakers: These were hard-nosed political calculations in the service of huge policy choices for the nation; jolly personal relationships were not needed. And another: No one questioned the ideological credentials of these leaders as a result of the deals.
In short, Massachusetts’ modern speakers offer examples of leadership through effective compromise in the national interest — models, perhaps, even today.
Joe Martin: ‘No other practical choice’
Republicans captured the national mood in 1946 with a simple slogan: “Had Enough?” Their victory, taking 55 seats, made Joe Martin speaker.
Martin faced a politically weak Democratic president, Harry Truman, and the new speaker described his relationship with the president as “like a cobra and mongoose.”
Truman was intent on building a new postwar order, and requested of Martin’s House the Truman Doctrine to send aid to Greece and Turkey, and then the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe.
Both the cost of the measures and the international entanglements they furthered irritated a bloc of votes within Martin’s caucus. Truman himself rarely consulted with Martin, who was keenly aware of the slight to the Congress by an ever-more-powerful executive.
Still, Martin used his prestige to nudge the Rules Committee to move the Truman Doctrine to the House floor, where a strong bloc of 91 Republicans voted against it. He exerted an even stronger hand in the House to maneuver the Marshall Plan through in the spring of 1948, as 61 of his GOP colleagues voted no. “We had to carry the burden of leadership, costly as it was,” Martin would later write. “There was no other practical choice.”
John McCormack: Champion of civil rights
John McCormack’s home district was not particularly diverse, but he was a lifelong champion of civil rights, even when it took courage, ingenuity, and strong measures to pull the House along.
In 1949, when he was majority leader, McCormack leveraged his own seniority to win a committee chairmanship for William L. Dawson of Chicago, the first African American to chair a congressional committee. Then, in an extremely unusual move, he retained his own seat on the committee, while majority leader, to prevent Southern Democrats from bolting.
In late 1963, McCormack supported the landmark Civil Rights Bill, but his own Rules Committee chairman, Howard W. Smith of Virginia, threatened to kill it by delaying committee action. A discharge petition would be an affront to Smith, McCormack’s own chairman, and a difficult vote for members, particularly Democrats, who saw it as a dangerous precedent. But on Dec. 3, McCormack announced that a discharge petition would be filed promptly. Two days later, Smith capitulated.
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill in 1964, McCormack was at his elbow, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. directly behind.
Tip O’Neill: Preserved Social Security
Pictures don’t lie, so the images of Ronald Reagan sharing a hearty laugh with Tip O’Neill portray moments that are genuine. But the relationship between the two was not nearly as chummy as often described.
They were adversaries, scrappers who pulled no punches and expected no less from the other. O’Neill repeatedly said he and Reagan were from the same side of the tracks, but Reagan had crossed over to Republican land, and forgotten where he came from. Reagan’s GOP lampooned O’Neill as an overweight Democratic Santa Claus with a gift sack that was empty.
When Reagan proposed major tax and spending cuts, many Democrats urged O’Neill to bottle up the legislation in the Rules Committee. But O’Neill realized obstructionism would be bad for the country and bad for the Democratic Party. He argued strenuously against the Reagan economic policy, but lost on the floor of the House. The 1982 mid-term election then became a referendum on Reaganomics, and this time the Democrats prevailed: They gained 26 House seats.
In 1983, Social Security pushed its way to center stage, because the Trust Fund was in immediate danger of going broke. Reagan had once proposed that Social Security be voluntary. O’Neill saw it as the very bedrock of New Deal social policies. The deal was struck not through personal negotiations, but through representatives on a committee.
The compromise required both sides to accept policy changes they vehemently opposed. O’Neill agreed to a rise in payroll taxes and a gradual increase in the retirement age, both of which were toughest on blue-collar people. But Reagan swallowed hard and agreed to several progressive provisions, including taxing the Social Security benefits of wealthier recipients. Each party agreed not to attack the other on the Social Security issue in the 1984 election. By guaranteeing its solvency for several decades, the compromise established Social Security as a fundamental and enduring element of American life.
Robert L. Turner is a senior fellow at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at UMass Boston. Peter Ubertaccio is director of the Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College. Ira Jackson is dean of the McCormack Graduate School at UMass Boston. R. Shep Melnick is the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Professor of American Politics at Boston College.