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The Promise of Community Action

By Jeannie Chaffin, Director, Office of Community Services

Many of you may have heard me joke that I was a baby left on the door step of Community Action. It was actually at the age of 20 that I started my career at the Ozarks Area Community Action Corporation (OACAC) as an intake specialist under the Job Training Partnership Act summer worker program. I enjoyed the position so much that I begged my then-supervisor to keep me on if at all possible.  Fortunately, he did.

Read More Here!

Weatherization Funding Turnaround Begins

FY 2015 Weatherization Funding:
Finally! The Turnaround Begins

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Weatherization's future brightened today. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water marked up and reported its FY 2015 Bill to the full Appropriations Committee this morning. 
Although the details of every program are not yet available, our friends on the subcommittee told us that it contains a significant INCREASE for Weatherization which we believe will bring the program to well over $190 million. The 2014 level is $173.9 million.  
As we had advocated, there is no carve-out for other purposes or groups in the Bill.
Until now, Weatherization has not been a priority for the majority of Members on this subcommittee. Under the new leadership of Rep. Mike Simpson [R-ID] the tone is completely different; our champions, especially Ranking Member Rep. Marcy Kaptur [D-OH], were supported by the chair in increasing WAP's share of a flat Energy Department budget.   Chairman Simpson even affirmed the importance of efficiency in making energy affordable in his opening statement.
Just as we have slowly rebuilt our Senate coalition in support of WAP over the past five years, we are working on the same process in the House. Today's terrific outcome reflects these efforts. And we are not done yet!


Notes on the President's 2015 Budget Proposal

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Overview: The President's overall budget and each Department 's and major account's budget meets the target agreed to in the two-year bi-partisan Budget  agreement  for 2014 & 2015. It provides for an overall increase of a little over 2%,  achieved by allocating cuts to larger increases in areas of Administration emphasis.
This summary  of the  Budget Request for  FY 2015 as it affects four core Community Action programs shows the Administration has not changed  the  priorities of the 2014 Budget presented a year ago.

President Obama submitted his FY 2015 Budget proposal to Congress on Tuesday March 4th.  It was sent to Congress a month later than usual. Two factors contributed to this delay. The first was last October's government shutdown and the second was the December Murray/Ryan budget agreement that set both FY 2014 and FY 2015 spending levels.
The President's budget exceeds the Murray/Ryan budget caps by $56 billion. This summary of the Budget Request for FY 2015 as it affects four core Community Action programs shows the Administration has not changed the priorities of the 2014 Budget presented a year ago.
Four Programs: The LIHEAP and CSBG requests are essentially the same as the requests made for 2014 and later rejected by Congress in favor of higher funding.  The rationale for a $350 million CSBG is: "to build ladders of opportunity into the middle class and promote economic mobility by proposing to target funds to high-performing and innovative grantees that successfully meet community needs, and suspend funding in instances of fraud and abuse."
The Weatherization Request is a welcome affirmation of administration interest in the program: it is considerably higher than in recent years.  The figure, $227.6 million, is about $5 million higher than the FY 2008 appropriation, therefore winning it would, technically, achieve NCAF's first-phase goal of restoring the program to is pre-ARRA level, although not the inflation adjusted dollars we seek. Unfortunately, the Department of Energy proposes to use $15 million of the total for "approximately 20 high-impact projects on financing models for the retrofit of low-income, multifamily buildings" thus leaving $206 million for the core programs or 7% less than in 2008.
Head Start is again slated for an increase, but not as large an increase as the President requested a year ago. With $150 million of the increase devoted to Early Head Start - Child Care Partnerships and nearly as much to quality increases in Head Start, the focus on early childhood development continues. The Education Department Budget again asks for large increase in early childhood education.
The President's budget will be seen for what it is: a political document that appeals to the party's base and provides a sharp contrast with the House Republicans vision on the role of government in this day and age.
We expect the House Republican Budget proposal to be unveiled by House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan later this month to also be essentially a campaign document with virtually no chance of being accepted by the Democratic Senate.
In the end, I would expect that some spending levels proposed in the Obama Budget as well as in the Ryan Budget will be rejected and the FY 2015 appropriations well end up slightly above their FY 2014 levels.

March 5, 2014

Why the Obama budget is already dead
By Ed O'Keefe, The Washington Post
March 4 at 3:11 pm
Congress has passed a two-year budget agreement that sets spending levels through the end of 2015, meaning that members of the House and Senate can justifiably dismiss the budget President Obama unveiled Tuesday as irrelevant.

But the White House is required by law to present a budget proposal each year, so Obama used the moment to release an ambitious proposal that relies on more than $1 trillion in new taxes and includes more than $55 billion in new spending. Next week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is expected to follow up with a proposal that will focus on welfare reform and an overhaul of social programs, including Head Start and Medicaid.

Neither proposal will go anywhere — and that's by design.

"Everybody realizes that both sides are going to continue to put out their message documents to show what they would do if they gained seats in the House or Senate," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday. "But at the same time, there’s a very strong desire to start legislating."

With a budget fight out of the way until late next year, attention is expected to focus in the coming weeks on the House and Senate appropriations committees that will decide how federal agencies can spend money next year. But before that begins, both parties paused Tuesday to take shots at the opposing side.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Obama had "opted for the political stunt for a budget that's more about firing up the base in an election year than about solving the nation's biggest and most persistent long-term challenges."

Other Republicans followed in lock-step. Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) called it "dead on arrival," while Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) dismissed it as a "lame-duck budget." Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.), a freshman member of the House Budget Committee, preferred to call it a "campaign document." He said he looked forward to reading Ryan's budget plan next week.

“I think what you’ll see from us is a budget that resembles what we’ve passed the last several cycles, with an effort to put forward a conservative vision of what we need to do to put people back to work, reform our welfare systems and get America going again," Messer said.

But GOP aides said there are no current plans to hold votes on Ryan's budget plan.

Democrats, meanwhile, cheered Obama's proposal. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) credited the White House for including new investments in the nation's infrastructure, while Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) said he supported calls for new investments in manufacturing and education. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) thanked Obama for including money to help cut carbon pollution that might help prevent deadly weather events like Hurricane Sandy. But Democrats expressed only perfunctory hope that Republicans would allow debate on Obama's plan.

"Budgets are statements of our values as a nation," Pallone said.

The Senate Budget Committee will meet Wednesday morning with the White House budget chief to review Obama's proposals. Senate Democrats have no plan to debate or pass another budget bill this year, but Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she hopes Republicans will consider Obama's ideas "as a supplement" to ongoing work on appropriations bills.

That's unlikely to happen. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) flatly rejected Obama's proposal Tuesday, saying it was "extremely disappointing" that the White House plan "blatantly disregards the budget limits" established in the budget passed in December. Rogers said he plans to stick with the $1.014 trillion spending plan approved in December.

And other lawmakers said that's how it should be — that there's no need for another fight over spending.

"Do we need to go through it again if we’ve already done it?" said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Senate Budget Committee. "It’s not like we don’t have other things we could be doing."
Ed O'Keefe covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post. He previously covered the 2008 and 2012 campaigns and reported on federal agencies and federal employees as author of The Federal Eye blog. Follow Ed on Twitter.


National Community Action Foundation Brief

A Very Important Week -
Monday, January 6, 2013
• We expect House and Senate Appropriations to release their preliminary agreements on the final FY 2014 program spending sometime this week. Under the Murray/Ryan mid-December budget agreement, overall spending for FY 2014 and 2015 has been set. The House and Senate Appropriations chairs -Mikulski (D-MD) and Rogers (R-KY)- have divided up the allocations in exactly the same amounts to each of the 12 Appropriations Subcommittees.

 The FY 2014 Labor-HHS Appropriation Bill, especially in the House, emerged a big winner. We remain optimistic that CSBG funding will be restored to pre-sequestration levels.

• A broad collation of support, currently in both House and Senate Appropriation Committees remain engaged on behalf of CSBG funding. Head Start and LIHEAP funding are also moving in the right direction.

• Despite Senate Majority Leader Reid's pessimistic comments over the weekend, chances of Congress passing an omnibus appropriations bill by next week look good.  Good movement also on the weatherization funding. Senator Collins (R-ME), Coons (D-DE) and Reed (D-RI) are playing a big supportive role, progress in the last 3 days among House Appropriations.

•  After a final negotiation session on Friday, we expect the House to introduce CSBG reauthorization bill this week. It may not have the 4 co-sponsors we originally wanted, but intend for it to be introduced by 1 Republican and 1 Democrat. This is not a serious setback.

• My almost daily legislative journal will start again today. Every 2014  CAPPAC Club 199 member will be receiving this interesting inside look at our legislative work.

• Our March NCAF Legislative Conference is really shaping up. It looks like our bi-partisan House CSBG sponsor panel is going to happen. Getting Republican and Democrats to appear together really has taken some work!
David Bradley 
Executive Director 
National Community Action Foundation

December 11, 2013

Biggest Part of Budget Deal May Be Having One at All

By Niels Lesniewski and Emma Dumain
Roll Call Staff
Dec. 9, 2013, 5:59 p.m

 As the contours of a potential two-year budget agreement have emerged in advance of a Friday deadline, those outside the talks are expressing displeasure with both sides — perhaps a sign that a deal really is close.

And any deal, although certain to fall far short of the aborted grand bargains of yore, would be remarkable in its own right, ending a year of historic dysfunction in Washington, D.C., with a road map for a return to some semblance of normalcy.

Each side would get something: Republicans can avoid another messy government shutdown in an election year while softening a new round of defense cuts, and they seem likely to declare victory on the major sticking point: no tax increases.

Democrats will get to restore some of their favored domestic spending programs while they extract at least some small amount of revenue from the GOP — albeit in categories such as spectrum sales or user fees rather than closing tax breaks for the wealthy or corporations.

While the talks began with a formal budget conference, the important part of what’s taking shape won’t be a budget resolution, per se. That’s a nonbinding document that can merely instruct other committees to move legislation. Rather, spending and benefit changes would be enshrined in law, along with language to deem discretionary spending levels for the two-year length of the agreement, including a roughly $1 trillion cap for fiscal 2014 that will allow anxious appropriators a chance to finally craft an omnibus spending bill.

The legislation would amend the 2011 Budget Control Act that put the sequester cuts into law in the first place — provided leaders can line up the votes.

An aide familiar with the talks said the need to get 60 votes to limit debate in the Senate won’t be much of a concern, but threading the needle in the House could prove quite a task.

Heritage Action for America, a conservative group influential in the House, said in a statement Monday that it was against short-term spending above sequester levels.

“Heritage Action cannot support a budget deal that would increase spending in the near-term for promises of woefully inadequate long-term reductions. While imperfect, the sequester has proven to be an effective tool in forcing Congress to reduce discretionary spending, and a gimmicky, spend-now-cut-later deal will take our nation in the wrong direction,” the group said.

Aides to House Democrats and Republicans close to, or with knowledge of, the status of budget negotiations implied what has become all too apparent: The chamber has only one representative at the table, and that’s Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis. Everyone else is being kept largely on the sidelines of discussions, from party leaders to appointed conferees.

Despite murmurs that a deal could be announced as soon as Tuesday, Rep. Chris Van Hollen — the Maryland Democrat who is a budget conferee and ranking member on the House Budget Committee — on Monday was still saying he thought the chances for reaching an agreement were “50-50.”

In an interview on MSNBC, Van Hollen said it was “absolutely” a deal breaker for him should the budget deal, as rumored, find savings in requiring federal workers to contribute a greater amount into their retirement. Van Hollen seems to be trying to maximize the limited leverage that House Democrats have overall, since any deal that Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., would strike with Ryan would have to have broad backing of Senate Democrats.

Though a Ryan-Murray deal would fall short of the grand, multiyear budget blueprint for which lawmakers in both chambers had been clamoring, the outcome is expected to give Congress better tools to fulfill one of the body’s chief responsibilities: passing spending bills.

The big test, then, would be the drafting of an appropriations package. Of the 12 regular spending bills, those dealing with defense and security needs are usually easy to informally conference between the chambers, but the bills that focus on domestic spending regularly get stuck over partisan policy battles.

“That one might be a little more difficult,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., the chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said of his bill. “What we would probably do is get everybody to convene and take a look at it.

“The other 11 might be a little bit easier,” Kingston added.

Still, House Appropriations ranking member Nita M. Lowey, who also happens to be a budget conferee, said last week that she thought appropriators would largely complete their work.

While preventing a government shutdown would be an accomplishment in its own right, the budget talks would portend somewhere from $30 billion to $40 billion in relief from sequester cuts for the current budget year alone, since the post-sequester limit in current law is $967 billion.

That’s small potatoes relative to the multitrillion-dollar grand-bargain deals. And it’s only about twice the cost of blocking a scheduled cut in the payments doctors get for treating Medicare patients for another year.

Providing the “doc fix” is something of an annual ritual in the Capitol that will play out again, with a stopgap bill of three months likely to come up in the House before that chamber leaves for the Christmas holiday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., mentioned the Medicare payment issue in opening the Senate on Monday afternoon, reprising a familiar argument about using budgetary savings associated with the wind downs of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to pay for the patch.

December 3, 2013

Is a Budget Deal Close? Depends on Whom You Ask
By Emma Dumain
Posted at 2:21 p.m. Dec. 3

House Republican leadership’s decision to call the chamber back into session next Monday for legislative business — a change to the set 2013 congressional calendar — is sparking all kinds of speculation about what it might mean for fiscal 2014 budget prospects.

Namely, is the budget conference committee nearing a deal to replace the sequester and provide higher spending levels for appropriations bills? Or will the committee’s Dec. 13 deadline come and go with an agreement still elusive?

While some speculation has centered on a possible plan to move a continuing resolution to fund the government, one GOP leadership aide told CQ Roll Call that the chamber was likely set to be in session on Dec. 9, so that the Rules Committee could pave the way for a House vote on a deal secured by House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash.

“No CR is currently being written,” said the aide, adding that Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and other senior Republican appropriators did not support a stop-gap spending bill at this time “given the fact that the budget conference appears to be close to a deal.”

Rogers and the twelve chairmen of the House Appropriations subcommittees recently sent a letter to Ryan and Murray all but begging the House-Senate budget conferees to come up with a more workable topline number at which to write spending bills — and to do so sooner rather than later.

Rogers and Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., wanted the top-line spending level by Monday. With that deadline having passed, the odds only increase that another stopgap spending bill will become necessary, even if Ryan and Murray hammer out a deal.

But if a budget deal is in the offing, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., appears to not know about it. He said Tuesday morning that his “suspicion” is that the House was reconvening next Monday to allow the Rules Committee to set the gears in motion to vote on a short-term CR. Were that the case, it would be a clear sign that confidence in the budget conference committee had eroded.

Hoyer, for his part, seemed to have gone from cautiously optimistic to somewhat pessimistic, saying Tuesday that Republicans’ “energy toward getting a budget deal seems very minimal.”

He also said he wouldn’t support a stop-gap spending measure that would, for any length of time, perpetuate sequestration at the austere level of $967 billion — a sign that Republicans would largely be on their own in passing such a measure, and many members of their own party are sour to the concept.

Speaker John A. Boehner, too, sounded a pessimistic note Tuesday, accusing the Senate of not being serious about getting a budget deal.

Multiple House Republican leadership aides confirmed that while the Ohio Republican was inclined to move on a CR before the holiday recess, he would not do so until it was clear an agreement on a larger budget framework could not be reached. Moving before the new year makes sense, in Boehner’s estimation, to avoid a scramble to renew government funding in the days before the current CR expires on Jan. 15.

November 22, 2013

6 Questions to Ponder About the Senate’s Nuclear Winter
By David Hawkings
Posted at 12:08 p.m. Nov. 22

Thirty years ago this week, more than 100 million Americans tuned in for the first airing of “The Day After” on ABC — the audience eager, during the final years of the Cold War, for a blockbuster vision of what the heartland might look like if both Washington and Moscow exercised their nuclear options.

On the day after the biggest change to the congressional rules in four decades — sharply curtailing the power of the filibuster, an essential element of life in the Senate — the public may be clamoring for some insight into what just happened.

These six questions and answers may help.

1. Why is it called the “nuclear option”?

The allusion to an atomic blast is as much about how the Senate rules were changed as about the way in which the rules were changed.

The breadth of the impact on the legislative process, and on the balance of power at the Capitol, is undeniably significant, although its extent cannot be precisely measured just now. The number of political players who have seen their power hobbled by the move is also extensive, but can’t yet be quantified.

In those ways, the situation is analogous to the detonating of a nuclear bomb: Plenty of the damage is plain to see, but the breadth of the fallout takes a long time to measure. For now, it’s only clear that the minority’s right to filibuster most judicial and all executive branch nominees has effectively been destroyed, and that means the Republicans are the only victims. But there is nothing to prevent efforts to end the legislative filibuster from bubbling up soon enough. And it’s a dead certainty that whenever the Republicans win control of the Senate, whether next fall or in an election years later, they will turn the tables on the newly-entrenched-in-the-minority Democrats with a vengeance.

The way in which Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., deployed his power play on Thursday also had some similarities to the start of a nuclear war. Like many missile attacks, his series of choreographed parliamentary moves and roll call votes had been threatened for a long time, was stealthy in the planning, undisguised in the execution and swift to reach completion. And it was impossible to contain the damage once the launch sequence was begun.2. How did it come to this?

The change is the most fundamental alteration to the way the Senate functions since 1975, when the supermajority required to break a filibuster, known more formally as invoking cloture, was reduced to 60 from 67.

For the next three decades, meeting that three-fifths-of-all-senators threshold was relatively rarely required for overcoming either ideological objections, or dilatory protests, in order to advance legislation or nominees. But the situation devolved quickly in 2005, when a Republican majority sought to confirm a series of President George W. Bush’s judicial picks and were thwarted by a unified Democratic bloc, which labeled the nominees too conservative for confirmation. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., came within as a day of trying a maneuver similar to what Reid executed Thursday, but pulled back after seven senators from each party – the “gang of 14″ — announced they would begin opposing filibusters of judicial nominees except in “extraordinary circumstances,” a phrase left undefined.

That eased tensions a bit through the end of the Bush years. But, soon after President Barack Obama took office with fellow Democrats running the Senate, the filibustering of nominees spiked to unprecedented levels. The official numbers from the Senate confirm a principal talking point of Reid’s – that half of all the filibusters to thwart confirmations in the history of the Senate have come during this administration.

3. Why did this happen when it did ?

After a couple of bipartisan compromises on the margins of the debate failed to do much to change the situation, Reid came under increasing pressure this year from the junior members of his own ranks, who have now come to dominate the Democratic caucus. Thirty-three of its 55 members have arrived since 2007, meaning they have been in the majority their entire Senate careers and have never needed or experienced the benefits of the main Senate rule created to preserve power for the minority party.

Only in the past week, though, did Reid become confident he had sufficient votes to prevail in the parliamentary showdown; the tipping point seemed to come when veteran California Democrat Dianne Feinstein announced she was reversing her position and would support the nuclear option.

Beyond that, Reid looks to have concluded he had very little to lose in the short-term, and some not-unimportant benefits to gain. Essentially nothing substantive that his caucus or the president might propose looked to stand a chance of getting past a Senate GOP wall of resistance before the midterm elections anyway, so from his point of view, the post-nuclear-option outrage from the Republicans could not translate into any more obstructionism than was already taking place.

And, while the legislative system may remain totally locked up for as long as three years, Reid and the Democrats have gained virtually unfettered power for at least one more year to deliver to the president the people he wants to manage the executive branch and advance his regulatory priorities – a power made all the more important at a time when few new laws are being written

At least as importantly, the change means that, at least until the midterms, Obama will be able to fill as many circuit court of appeals and district court vacancies as exist with lifetime appointments, an opportunity to assure his vision for interpreting the law long outlasts his time in the White House.

Democrats had become confident that Republicans were preparing to “go nuclear” at their first opportunity, and it’s probably an even-money bet that could be in January 2015. So they concluded they were willing to take the blame for an institutional explosion that was inevitable anyway, because at least they would be able to reap the benefits for a year

In the interim, Reid is hoping the public takes little interest in the insiders’ complaints about “breaking the rules in order to change the rules,” as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., fairly described the move, and more about the chance of restoring some semblance of functionality to the place: “It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete.”

4. How angry are the Republicans?

They certainly sound hopping mad — especially because they view Reid as having patently broken a promise, reiterated as recently as July, not to do what he just did. In these dysfunctional times, the reliability of a Senate leader’s word had been one of the few filaments of trust that kept the place operating at all.

To vent their disapproval, Republicans mounted a filibuster that prevented the Senate from finishing deliberations on the annual defense authorization bill this week — although a lopsided GOP majority wants the measure enacted, just as it has been 52 years running. The two-week recess bracketing Thanksgiving will in theory give the GOP time to get beyond its feelings of betrayal. If the Senate returns with even the normally collaborate Republicans intent on tying the place in as many parliamentary knots as possible — and plenty of dilatory maneuvers remain available even without as many filibuster openings — that will mean the cooling off period didn’t work.

Nonetheless, such public fury from the Republicans in the short term might be masking a little bit of relief that the Democrats have done some of the long-term dirty work for them.

There’s little reason to doubt that McConnell was ready to curb the power of the filibuster were he to become majority leader – especially if a Republican wins the presidency in 2016 and the GOP holds the House, giving the party control of all the policymaking levers for the first time in a decade. Reid’s move means McConnell won’t have to press the initial detonation button, and probably wouldn’t take all that much criticism if he moves to eliminate the legislative filibuster as well in order to advance his party’s agenda.

5. Why didn’t Democrats eliminate filibusters on legislation?

There is nothing, procedurally, to prevent them from doing so. As Thursday’s developments show, changes in the Senate rules, which are supposed to be fully debatable and subject to a two-thirds-majority vote, can effectively be changed by a simple majority.

But there does not appear to be any move afoot by the Democrats to take the next logical step by ending the filibuster altogether. The main reason is that they would reap no benefit from dropping that second nuclear bomb. Because nominations aren’t handled by the House, the new rules give the Democrats uncheckable ability to give their president what he asks for. Not so with legislation, which of course has to be passed in identical form by both the House and Senate to become law. Democrats have nothing to gain by streamlining the system so their bills can get more quickly across the Capitol, because the current House GOP majority would still be likely to shelve the measures in opposition to the policy changes being proposed.

But, to drive the point home, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has declared that he House would not touch a bill, no matter its merits, if it had been passed by the Senate without having to run the current cloture-first gantlet.

6. Why the exception for Supreme Court nominees?

Democrats were willing to accept that someday a Republican Senate will be able to quickly fill lower-court vacancies with the super-conservative nominees from a GOP president. But they were unable to acquiesce in that same scenario for the highest court in the country — especially at a time when its ideological balance is on a knife’s edge, and when advocates for abortion rights and other liberal causes were expressing wariness of the risk.

The tradeoff is that, by preserving the filibuster as a tool to stop Supreme Court nominees, Reid has made it potentially significantly difficult for Obama to install a new justice for the rest of his presidency. Especially if an opening unexpectedly occurs soon, while the pain of nuclear winter is still palpable, Republicans would be very tempted to unite against anyone Obama might choose — even if that meant leaving one of the court’s nine seats empty for a time.

Of the two liberal anchors of the court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be 83 at the time of the next presidential election, and Stephen G. Breyer 78. Both Anthony M. Kennedy, the only genuine swing vote, and Antonin Scalia, the leader of the conservative bloc, will turn 80 in 2016.

November 18, 2013

How the Capitol Turned the Day JFK Died
By David Hawkings
Posted at 8 p.m. on Nov. 17

Nov. 22 falls on the Friday before Thanksgiving this year, just as it did 50 years ago. And that extraordinary day in 1963 began on the Hill in ways that would seem familiar to the congressional denizens of today.

The House was done for the week, having pushed through spending bills for public works, arms control and military construction in plenty of time to allow a cluster of Texas Democrats to get home for a high-profile political photo op.

The Senate convened for general speech-making and preliminary debate on the bills set for consideration after the weekend: restricting wheat sales to Soviet bloc nations and delivering federal funds for local library construction. As was the custom, then as now, the chore of acting as presiding officer had been parceled out to several of the freshmen with the lunchtime slot assigned to the youngest in the class, 31-year-old Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

He was in the chair when his brother was killed.

And from that instant, the scene at the Capitol unfolded in ways that may be difficult to comprehend in today’s congressional culture of commuting lawmakers, hyper-partisanship, legislative stasis, saturation live coverage and social-media press relations.

Almost 20 minutes elapsed between when the shots were fired at John F. Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas and when a messenger delivered the first ominous alert to the president’s youngest sibling, who hustled off the rostrum and called the White House to learn more.

“Will the senator from Vermont yield for an emergency?” Democrat Wayne Morse of Oregon asked, interrupting a speech by Republican Winston Prouty to propose a quorum call while the horrific explanation for the young Kennedy’s departure swept through the chamber.

Sketchy and confused reports — some maintaining the president was merely wounded, others asserting he was dead — had by then started to surge across the otherwise quiet complex. A Capitol Police officer clamored through the halls to alert whichever members he could find.  Longworth cafeteria servers stunned their patrons with the news. Staffers clustered in the offices equipped with radios or televisions, or joined groups of members heading to nearby churches.

Majority Leader Mike Mansfield took the Senate floor for just long enough to secure approval of a couple of unanimous consent agreements, then asked colleagues to “stand in recess, pending developments.” The Montana Democrat returned 15 minutes later and summoned all senators to the chamber. Sixty-nine streamed in, an astonishing number by today’s standards for a Friday afternoon when no roll calls had been scheduled.

They all stood and bowed their heads while the chaplain, Methodist minister Frederick Brown Harris, beseeched God to spare a president felled “like a giant cedar, green with boughs” that “leaves a lonesome place against the sky.”

By the time the prayer ended, it had been 20 minutes since JFK had been administered the last rites and pronounced dead at Parkland Hospital.

The senators did not know that. In an era when news services still used a form of telegraphy to send their dispatches, television news was in its infancy and multitasking smartphones were science fiction, the official word did not come for another agonizing third of an hour — because it took The Associated Press and United Press International eight minutes to get their “flash” headlines out after a White House press aide announced that the president was dead.

The most prominent lawmaker waiting by the teletype was Speaker John William McCormack.  Though the House was gone for the weekend, the speaker had stayed in town and was having lunch in the Members’ Dining Room when a reporter approached with grim word about his former Democratic colleague in the Massachusetts delegation. McCormack rushed upstairs to the House Press Gallery and hunched his tall, thin, 71-year-old frame over its wire service machines.

When the tickers definitively declared that JFK had died, McCormack became “ashen-faced” and slipped out of the room without saying a word, Roll Call reported at the time.  Although he had just moved up to first in the line of presidential succession, he was accompanied by neither staff nor security.

For the congressional community, the bewilderment, anger and grief that took hold of the nation in the ensuing days was even more intense than elsewhere, because Capitol Hill took particular pride in having one of its own in the White House. In 1960, the 43-year-old Kennedy became not only the youngest person ever elected president, but also the first incumbent member of Congress sent to the White House in 40 years.

“We saw him come to this body at age 35, we saw him grow, we saw him rise, we saw him elevated,” went one of the most effusive eulogies delivered in the Senate — and it came from a Republican, Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois.

“If at any moment he may have seemed overeager, it was but the reflection of a zealous crusader and missioner who knew where he was going,” Dirksen said just before the funeral the following Monday, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral near Dupont Circle.

Such Victorian rhetoric — preserved in an issue of the Congressional Record with highly unusual black-bordered cover pages — is out of fashion now. And in today’s political climate, it’s tough to imagine an elder statesman of one party paying such complement, even in death, to an opposing party leader’s straining youthful ambition.

Dirksen’s words are not the only reminder about how different Washington’s metabolism was back then. In the days after JFK’s burial, first the Republican and then the Democratic national committees announced that the total suspensions of their partisan activities would extend to the end of the year.

The top GOP presidential aspirants for 1964, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the eventual nominee, also stopped campaigning for a full month, leaving just 10 weeks to stump before New Hampshire’s opening primary.

But the 88th Congress got right back to work. It did not use the period of mourning and the impending holiday as excuses to take the whole week off.

A bipartisan Senate majority had given Kennedy the final legislative victory of his life a day before the assassination, clearing a bill raising the debt ceiling to all of $315 billion, less than 2 percent of what it is today. The day after the funeral, senators rejected the grain export bill and endorsed the library money.

And by early afternoon Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, House members had returned to hear President Lyndon B. Johnson’s first speech to a joint session, in which he declared that enacting the long-stalled civil rights expansion would be the best possible tribute to his slain predecessor.

In just 120 hours, one era had ended in Congress and a new generation had begun.


OACAC News/Events

Updated on August 27, 2014

Updates on proposed budget cuts to Community Action Programs