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.
Once in 1957, the Virginia Democrat blocked President Eisenhower’s civil rights legislation by saying a barn burned down on his farm and he needed to tend to it.
At the time, Smith’s antics were hardly out of place. Colorful 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 back home.
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 last 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 the House and Senate. In the current Congress, no Southern senator is a committee chairman and there are just four in the House—fewer than from the state of California alone.
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 that was cemented in the 1990s. When Republicans lost control of Congress in last year’s elections, the region’s clout took a hit.
But signs of waning influence were evident under Republican control. Through death, retirement and a more competitive political environment, the South simply lost the seniority that gave it such outsized influence.
‘A brutal political playing field’
“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 congressman Billy Tauzin. The one-time 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.
Brad Fitch, chief executive of Knowledgis, a government relations firm that ranks lawmakers’ power, says there is good news for the region: The South still has heavy representation on the agriculture committees.
The bad news is that just one Southerner, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, made the top 10 lists in his 2007 “preseason” scorecard.
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, earning seniority and privileges.
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.
Lott: South will rise again
Democratic Sen. Russell Long—scion of the famed Louisiana political dynasty of Huey 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 under today’s centralized system, and Southerners often made clear their disdain for contrary 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.
Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican and a former majority leader, noted that as recently as the 1990s, Southerners like him and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia held nearly all the top leadership positions.
Lott called the South’s current low point an “aberration.” Regional influence in Congress ebbs and flows, he said, and the South will rise again.