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Friday, June 1, 1984

A Reviewers Notebook: Behind Enemy Lines


The modern liberal, says Republican Congressman Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma in his Behind Enemy Lines, seems to care more about the environment than about the people who use it. The result is that the liberal sometimes “treats trees like people and people like trees.”

In daring to take on the extreme environmentalists, Mickey Edwards has led a charmed political life. He comes from a section of Oklahoma that used to send Democrats to Washington, yet he wins with black votes even while serving as President of the American Conservative Union, which is against such things as busing and quotas. He doesn’t think much of the way Congress has behaved for the past half-century—it has, he says, “created the mess we are in.” The people, he observes, do not respect Congress—it is “one of the least trusted institutions in America.” Yet, amazingly, the members of Congress are consistently re-elected.

How to explain it? Mickey Edwards does the best he can, by showing how the Congressional committee and sub-committee systems allow special interests to triumph over the general. It seems to be a matter of intensity—a broad public will have only a narrow individual pocketbook interest in opposing a particular bill, while the proponents, with much bigger individual sums at stake, will be ready to scratch and scrabble for it to the last inch. The cure for the troubles is education—and this is what Mickey Edwards’ book is mostly about.

Ideas come first, in Mickey Edwards’ observation—and before Congress can really change, “ideas must have form, substance.” Rhetoric is not enough. So, in his section on “new directions,” Mickey Edwards focuses on what is happening to crystallize opinion out in the country. He speaks of the Jarvis amendment (Proposition 13) which mandated a big cut in property taxes in California. The Jarvis amendment did not exist in a vacuum; it was only the latest in a series of events that included voter rejections of school bonds, library bonds, road bonds and new taxes. Congress has not yet decided to bite the bullet in turning to a “low tax, low spend” policy, but Mickey Edwards’ account of the proselytizing efforts of the so-called Core Group in the House of Representatives (dubbed the “yellowjackets” by commentator David Broder) shows the way a new wind is blowing.

Mickey Edwards makes no hard-and-fast predictions, but he doubts that our present “pragmatism” will do for the 21st century. Our debates, he says, “do not call for adding ma chines, computer printouts and econometric models; they call for passion, for commitment, for principles, for vision.” We need more than a Congress obsessed “with instant, simple solutions . . . regulating the design of toilet seats, for example.”

The Common Situs Bill

In fighting the institutional breakdown in Congress, Mickey Edwards and his friends have won some unexpected victories. Big Labor, as represented by the AFL-CIO, has yet to recover from the defeat of the so-called common situs bill in the 95th Congress. If common situs had won, the labor unions would have been able to extend a strike against a single contractor to a walk-out involving all unions on a given job. The unions would have gained the right to maintain “secondary boycotts.” The conventional expectation was that union campaign payoffs to Congressional members in the 1976 elections had been sufficient to insure a thumping victory for common situs. But with John Ashbrook of Ohio leading the fight, the conservatives persisted in what they thought was a hopeless rearguard action.

Edwards is both graphic and amusing in his story of the meetings in John Ashbrook’s office. Ashbrook was a newspaper publisher who never threw any printed matter away. They called him “Trash-brook.” The piles of papers on the “floors, chairs, laps and in the aisles” of his office in the old Longworth building had the conservatives huddling in corners. But if “Trashbrook’s” room was cluttered, his mind was uncommonly clear. The object was to present a bill with few amendments to the Senate, where freshman Orrin Hatch of Utah might conduct a filibuster that would prevent final passage. Curiously enough, however, a final House version was defeated on the floor. As Ashbrook and Edwards watched the electronic tallyboard they could hardly believe their eyes. The Big Labor juggernaut had failed.

John Ashbrook is now dead from a heart attack incurred while he was running for the Senate. Other players in the battle—Ron Sarasin of Connecticut, Al Quie of Minnesota—are no longer in Congress. But the labor supporters of the bill have never been able to regroup. Their long-time dismay is what led to the AFL-CIO’s preconvention endorsement of Walter Mondale for President, a sign of desperate resolve to restore their old domination of Capitol Hill. The desperation tactic has probably hurt Mondale more than it has helped—people with a growing suspicion of government do not like to be treated as a complaisant monolith.

Playing Politics

In telling about life in Congress Mickey Edwards is willing to admit there must be quarrels between a man’s innermost philosophical convictions and his need, as a “small-d’ democrat, to represent the people in his district back home. In 1979 the Senate needed funds to complete the magnificent new office building—the Taj Mahal—which it had, with the help of the House, voted itself. Edwards, with Steve Symms of Idaho, opposed the more lavish features of the proposed Senatorial marble palace. With bad blood existing between Senate and House, Mickey Edwards promised to be waiting for the Senate to revive its demand for Taj Mahal money. But when the bill finally came back he didn’t have a word to say.

What had happened was that the Senate request for office building funds had been made part of a catchall appropriations bill. With two Oklahoma water projects pending in the Senate, Edwards did not dare risk the displeasure of his constituents by opposing the catch-all legislation. “I kept quiet,” he says, “and let others fight—a classic example of the way expedience takes precedence over principle.”

Maybe the answer would be to outlaw the device of the catch-all bill. This would be a Congressional equivalent of the line-item veto which the President would like to have. But Mickey Edwards is against the line-item veto on the ground that it might give too much power to the Executive branch. His feeling is that Congress should be jealous of its powers, which presumably include the ability to save time by turning to catch-all legislation.

In all, Behind Enemy Lines is a most instructive book. It is civics as it is practiced, not as it is imagined in theoretical works.


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.