Where the Hawks Roost

Magazine cover with photo of rocky creekbed surrounded by green forest

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 2, "Worth Fighting For." Find more from that issue here.

When Ronald Reagan next asks Congress for money for the Nicaraguan contras — possibly as early as this September — Southerners will play a decisive role in whether he gets what he wants. Without a solid bloc of about 80 pro-interventionist Southerners in the U.S. House, he wouldn’t have a fighting chance for a dime. And without another, smaller group of Southerners — Democratic “swing voters” from states like Tennessee, Texas, Florida, and Georgia — he wouldn’t now have a realistic shot at getting everything he asks for.

It’s not that the Southerners in Congress are all such knee-jerk anti-communists that they make easy marks for Reagan’s so-called “freedom fighters.” Take Henry Gonzales, for instance. The stubborn patriot from San Antonio, Texas, stood on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on May 4, 1987 and chided Ronald Reagan for never giving “a hoot for human rights and freedom and democracy” when Nicaragua was “under the yoke of the worst kind of tyrant.” A 21-year veteran House Democrat who once defended Nixon’s Vietnam policy, Gonzales called the contras “gangsters” and the defeat of Somoza by the Sandinistas “a glorious revolution.” Condemning Reagan’s Central American policy, he concluded, “Either we get on die side of the people or we continue as the aides and allies of those in close brotherhood with the despots and tyrants of this part of the world.”

The voice of Southern progressivism can certainly be heard in Washington — but more often than not it is simply drown out by the deafening roar of the region’s overwhelmingly conservative representation. Time after time, Southern conservatives have provided the lopsided margins needed to keep the contras in cash — not to mention keeping the rest of the Pentagon’s pet projects in business.

Two years ago, for example, the House first rejected and then approved Reagan’s request for “humanitarian” assistance to the contras. In the first vote, an overwhelming majority of Southerners supported the request — but it still lacked the necessary majority for passage. After two months of lobbying, 31 House members changed sides and decided to give Reagan his money. Seventeen of the 31 were Southern Democrats — part of a group known as “Boll Weevils” because they frequently erode the Democratic party’s unified stance against the White House. 

In 1986, a similar scenario occurred. The House rejected and then approved $100 million in military aid for the contras. Six of the 11 switch voters were Southern Democrats. While the House Democratic leadership opposed the $100 million request, half of the Southern Democrats finally voted for it. In contrast, only nine of the 166 non- Southern Democrats deserted their leadership; overall, non-Southern House members opposed the aid by a margin of 168 (157D, 11R) to 135 (9D, 126R). But Southerners approved the measure 86 (4ID, 45R) to 41 (41D, OR) — a wide enough margin to ensure that the contras would get the money.

"The main reason why, even with an overwhelming majority in the House, the Democrats can’t get alternative policy passed is because of the Southern Democrats,” says Bill Harrison, a lobbyist for the Washington Office on Latin America. “They are huge numerically — and they don’t vote with the party leadership. They frequently line up with Republicans against Democratic leadership. They are key to how the House has changed on Central America votes.”

A Southern Exposure analysis of how Southerners in the House voted so far in 1987 reveals that they continue to play a pivotal role in foreign policy and military issues. Earlier this year, while Henry Gonzalas became the first House member to call for Reagan’s impeachment following the revelations of Contragate, his colleagues from the 13-state South voted by a 78 to 48 margin to keep U.S. tax money flowing to the contras. The March vote (number 10 on the Southern Exposure chart on pages 14-15) came on a resolution sponsored by the Democratic leadership to demand

an accounting from the Reagan administration of the funds already sent to the contras before releasing more money.

“We are facing the prospect of subversion and revolution in Latin America,” cried Florida Republican Micheal Bilirakis during the debate on the resolution. “It is shameful to recognize the illegitimate and forceful seizure of a popular uprising by a core of Marxists who engage in deception to further their goals, and if we cut the contras off, [it] will be an endorsement of this process.”

Boll Weevil Democrat W.C. (Dan) Daniel of Virginia told fellow House members, “We must discipline ourselves to follow through to victory.” And even the venerable liberal Claude Pepper (whose Miami district is half Hispanic, i.e., mostly conservative Cuban-Americans) opposed the resolution because “we must not allow another communist state in addition to Cuba to be set up in the Western Hemisphere.”

In the end, the Democratic leadership had to muster the support of 17 Republicans (none from the South) to pass the resolution. Of course, the resolution itself was fairly worthless since Reagan could veto it. But peace groups and liberals in Congress saw the vote as a test of anti-contra strength in the House and a trial run for the showdown expected this fall when the President makes his expected request for additional contra aid. When the vote comes, keep your eye on the number of Southern Democrats who side with Ronald Reagan. If he can pull 45 of their 85 potential votes, he will likely win. If he makes a deal with House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas for interim aid while the current peace initiatives are played out, he’ll have no trouble getting half the majority of votes he needs from the South alone.

The hawkish bias of Southerners influences the outcome of more than just the nation’s policy in Central America. In May, the House approved a Defense Department budget worth over $289 billion. (The Senate has yet to debate the bill, so this article focuses on the House.) According to the Southern Exposure analysis of several key votes (see pages 14-15), Southern hawks provided the margin of votes needed to block liberal measures that would have cut funding for the MX (vote 3), required more tests before developing the MK-48 torpedo (vote 4), prevented development of chemical and poison gas weapons (vote 5), banned U.S. troops in Honduras from getting within 20 miles of the Nicaraguan border (vote 7), and barred tests of Star War’s kinetic-kill anti-missile weapon (vote 2).

Were it not for the South, these restrictions and more would be in the overall defense authorization bill. Were it not for the South, the Democrat’s decidedly liberal majority would outvote the smaller number of Republicans and produce a less extravagant defense budget and a less adventuresome foreign policy. The chart on page 13 dramatizes the gap between the voting records of the House members from the South and non-South. While Southern Democrats score in the 40s on a pro peace index, Democrats outside the region vote right over 80 percent of the time. 

Southern Republicans, the most hawkish on everybody’s regional and party breakdown, including those compiled by the National Journal and American Security Council, make Dixie Democrats look good by comparison. But a review of key Congressional committees shows that the region’s Democratic hawks are especially important because they exercise enormous influence over the Defense Department’s budget. Their control is most direct through their continuing predominance on the House Armed Services Committee, the clearinghouse for military hardware and Pentagon priorities.

The South, with 29 percent of the members in the House as a whole, holds 22 of the 52 seats on the Armed Services Committee, or 43 percent of the votes. While the region’s representatives no longer include the chair (Les Aspin of Wisconsin), they do count three of the next six ranking Democrats and (coincidentally) three of the seven subcommittee chairs among their ranks. Fifteen of the 31 Democrats on the committee are Southerners, as well as the top two ranking Republicans (Bill Dickinson of Alabama and Floyd Spence of South Carolina). Southern Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee are particularly influential because they combine quantity with seniority and ideology to give the conservative forces a majority voice. They became early leaders among the Boll Weevils, taking up Reagan’s cause inside the Democratic caucus and pushing the entire debate over the defense budget to the right.

According to the Southern Exposure scores, the Southern Democrats on Armed Services are, as a group, not just conservative on foreign policy and military spending issues; they act like rightwing Republicans and frequently follow the vocal lead of ranking minority members Bill Dickinson, the Reagan administration’s mouthpiece on the committee. They include the most conservative Democrats from nearly every Southern state: Alabama (Nichols), Arkansas (Robinson), Florida (Hutto), Georgia (Darden), Mississippi (Montgomery), Tennessee (Lloyd), and Virginia (Daniel).

Only two Southern committee members — Charles Bennett of Jacksonville and Albert Bustamante of San Antonio — agreed with the peace position on at least half of the 10 votes in

our index. Like most of the other members, both men’s districts include sizeable military bases and plenty of military retirees. Bennett, chair of the Seapower Subcommittee and generally a champion for the Navy, sometimes bucks the Pentagon and offers the kind of “responsible” dissent that attracts centrist Democrats. He authored the nearly successful amendment against funding the MX missile in 1983, has been a consistent supporter of chemical weapons, and sponsored the Democratic leadership’s proposal this May to “limit” Star Wars funding to $3.1 billion. After opposing aid to the contras from 1983 to 1985, he sided with Reagan on votes in 1986 and 1987.

Bustamante, who entered the House in 1985 from a district that is 51 percent Hispanic, has waffled even more on contra aid; he opposed it, then provided one of the 11 switched votes to authorize the $100 million in 1986, then voted with the House leadership in March 1987 against releasing more money until receiving an accounting of how the earlier funds were spent. With these two men as the South’s leftwing on Armed Services, it’s not hard to see how the hawks continue their dominance.

Southerners also protect the Pentagon’s pork barrel — the payoff for seniority and loyal voting records — through their control of half of the 12 seats on the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriation Committee. The subcommittee chair, Bill Chappell, comes from a district that includes part of Charles Bennett’s Jacksonville Naval Base and continues south to the edge of Cape Canaveral. Another Boll Weevil Democrat, Chappell has been a chief sponsor of the B-l bomber and nuclear aircraft carriers.

By contast, Mississippi’s aging Jamie Whitten, who chairs the entire Appropriations Committee and sits on its Defense Subcommittee, is more concerned with soybeans than submarines. He has long used his powerful position to control the Department of Agriculture’s budget. He maintains good relations with the more liberal House leadership by following their lead when he votes on peace issues, and satisfies conservatives by allowing the more hawkish committee members — like Chappell, John Murtha of Pennsylvania, and Charles Wilson of Texas — to monitor Defense Department outlays.

The third center of importance for peace issues is the House Foreign Relations Committee, which shepherds legislation related to Central America. It lacks the pork barrel and Southern tilt of the defense committees, and is decidedly more liberal. Of the 45 committee members, only five are from Southern states (four from Florida and Jamie Clark of North Carolina); and three of these have scores of 80 or better on the Southern Exposure index. 

Even though the committee seems liberal and the South appears underrepresented, the region still plays a leading role (particularly on Central American policy) through its chair, Dante Fascell of South Florida. Fascell’s district is heavily Cuban-American, and although he supported the Nuclear Freeze and has taken the lead in opposing chemical weapons and the MX, he has consistently voted for military aid to the contras and, before that, to El Salvador. However, unlike his South Florida colleague, Claude Pepper, Fascell did support several less noticed bills to limit the use of U.S. funds or personnel in Central America (votes 7, 8, and 9).

The remaining position from which Southerners exercise influence over peace-related legislation is not in a committee; it’s behind the House Speaker’s podium in the person of Jim Wright, the shy but assertive Texan who is quickly making his presence felt as Tip O’Neill’s replacement. Wright likes to pick his fights carefully, and he may feel ill-prepared to take on Reagan over contra aid after Ollie North’s well-orchestrated performance. The Speaker’s surprise agreement with a White House peace proposal for Nicaragua, then his retreat from it in favor of the Central American-initiated plan, may indicate uncertainty about the votes to block the next bid for funding the “freedom fighters,” or a desire to recast the issue into a diplomatic rather than a military showdown.

As a regular House member, Wright consistently opposed money for the contras — and consistently favored developing chemical weapons. He has equivocated on the MX and generally supported such weapon systems as the B-l, Cruise, and Trident. He was by no means the most liberal member of the Texas delegation — but now he is the most powerful, and his centrist policies, joined with the liberal majority of non-Southem Democrats, gives him room to flex his muscles as far to the left as he is willing to go.

Battles will continue on Central America aid, deployment and funding for Star Wars and other weapon systems, treaty negotiations, and U.S. foreign policy in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. In future reports we’ll look in more detail at some of these controversies, as well as the larger patterns of voting behavior broken down by party and region. Meanwhile, a few comments are in order about the Southern delegation’s performance in 1987:

▲ Republicans on the list are far more cohesive than Democrats. The highest individual grade among the 41 Republicans was the 20 received by Howard Coble of North Carolina and Mac Sweeney of Texas. Twenty-five Republicans received 0’s and 14 others would not have faired any better had it not been for the far-fetched Davis (R-IL) amendment to grant official U.S. recognition of the contras as the legitimate government of Nicaragua (vote 9 — the only vote where a majority of Southerners took a pro-peace position).

▲ Among the regions, the South contains the largest percent of blacks and the second largest percent of Spanish-speaking voters. It also hosts the nation’s five poorest states, led by Mississippi. Progressive reformers should thrive on the needs of these constituents, but they seem only able to get elected in districts where minorities are not just strongly represented but numerically dominant — in Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, central San Antonio, and northern Miami. None of these districts have combined minority voting populations of less than 46 percent, and all of their representatives — except Lindy Boggs (the lone WASP among the group) — received grades of 100.

▲ Among the House members with the most disappointing voting records are several who come from districts where blacks and/or Hispanics make up more than a third of the voting age population. Wayne Dowdy, elected in a special election in 1981 after announcing his support for extension of the Voting Rights Act, has proven especially hawkish on peace issues. Democrats Tim Valentine (NC), Robin Tallon (SC), Norman Sisisky (VA), and Bill Grant (FL) should all be doing a better job of representing the most heavily black districts in their respective states.

▲ West Virginia fielded the most progressive delegation; three of its four representatives (all Democrats) received 100’s. West Virginia has traditionally stood apart from the Old South. Its coal mining economy and labor union battles have made the state one of the most unionized in the nation, as well as one of the most liberal and anti-interventionist politically. Kentucky’s most liberal member, Carl C. “Chris” Perkins, also represents a coal mining district He replaced his father, Carl D. Perkins, a New Dealer, who had represented the District from 1948 until he passed away recently.

▲ Alabama’s two Republicans and five Democrats easily make up the most conservative voting delegation. They managed only seven liberal votes out of their total of 70 votes. Republican Bill Dickinson, the ranking minority member of the Armed Services Committee, led the conservatives in the three-week-long debate on the Defense Department’s appropriation bill this May. He managed to keep the House members from Alabama in line, as well as many other Democrats, with such agruments as, “If you vote for these crippling, hobbling, inhibiting amendments, you are really voting to promote communism in Central America.”

▲ Arkansas’ more progressive delegation voted unanimously in favor of developing chemical weapons, making no bones about the influence of having its production facility located in Pine Bluff. Marilyn Lloyd attempted similar protection for her Tennessee district that included Oak Ridge, but she failed to win support for the Clinch River Breeder Reactor and recently announced plans to retire.

▲ Florida and Texas have much in common. The region’s fastest growing states owe much of their

prosperity to the military-industrial complex. Both have thriving Republican parties and delegations in Congress that are highly polarized by party, philosophy, seniority, and ethnic background. Both states take a keen interest in Latin American issues, and Hispanics play an increasingly important role in their political life. Indeed, how the two states change politically may well be determined by the differing orientations and directions of Texas’ Mexican- Americans and Florida’s more hawkish Cuban- Americans.

▲ The power of peace lobbying can be seen by comparing Bill Hefner’s voting record in 1987 with his performance on the 1984 Southern Exposure analysis (SE, Jan./Feb. 1984). As a senior member of the House Budget Committee, Hefner helped push Democratic budgets to the right during Reagan’s early years in office — including massive increases in defense spending. He supported the MX but followed the Democratic leadership in favoring the Nuclear Freeze in 1983. Lobbying from grassroots peace groups in the past couple of years has shored up his opposition to contra funding and increased his skepticism of Reagan’s Star Wars. Peace groups helped win another, more even reliable supporter in North Carolina by returning Jamie Clark to the seat he lost in 1984 to Bill Hendon, a rightwing ally of Jesse Helms.