SILVIO, CONGRESSMAN FOR EVERYONE
A Biographical Portrait of Silvio O. Conte
ADVOCATE FOR THE CONGRESS
“The primary role of a Congressman is
as a trustee for the nation.”
—Silvio O. Conte, 1969
Silvio Conte had the reverence for Congress that Harry Truman had for the Presidency. His deep devotion to the Congress arose from the intense pride he first felt in January of 1959 when he, the son of Italian immigrants, walked up the Capitol steps to take the oath of office. He retained this pride, this respect throughout his career.
In 1965, when Voting Rights legislation, which Silvio strongly supported, was pending, President Johnson announced, “I will send to Congress a law.” Silvio was infuriated that the President viewed the Congress as a rubber stamp and said, “A law, mind you, not a proposal, not a plan, not a suggestion, not a bill, but a law, a foregone conclusion, a decree.” Silvio opposed President Nixon on impoundments, Executive Branch refusals to spend appropriated funds, and said, “The crucial issue facing the Congress is the gradual erosion of power to the Executive Branch. The approval of legislation granting the President authority to cut spending to a $250 billion level was an unfortunate and dangerous abdication of the Congressional Constitutional power of the purse.”
Attacks upon the institution, attacks which became increasingly strident in the 1980s, were a source of personal distress for Silvio, especially when they came from Members. His answer always was, “Let’s do the job we’re elected to do.” Silvio strongly disagreed when fellow members tried to legislate away Congressional authority and staunchly fought attempts to cede Congressional responsibility. James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 39 almost 200 years earlier, “Among a people consolidated into one nation, the supremacy is completely vested in the National Legislature.” Silvio clearly understood that Article I of the Constitution delegates spending and other powers to the Congress and was as eloquent as the Federalist papers when he said of the executive branch in 1982, “I don’t think they understand the process. They’d like to think they can come up here and tell us what the committee should do or should not do. We’re elected by the people, half a million people, not to become robots but to think for ourselves, to be independent human beings to do what is right for them and for the country.”
James Madison would have nodded in agreement as Silvio explained how the process should function. “You have to give a little and take a little, just like seasoning food. When I first came here everybody in the hall knew each other. It was like one big family whether they were Republican or Democrat. Now you never see these people any more. They’re all campaigning and they’re all thinking up ideas of how they’re going to take over the world or the Congress. It’s important to have some around here who know the House, the Rules of the House, what you can do with give and take and know the art of compromise.”
With this he spelled out his personal style of doing this. “I do get excited and I am emotional, but when it’s over, I slap him on the back and invite him over for a drink. I give it everything I’ve got but I laugh afterward. I enjoy it. I like a good give and take.”
Silvio’s dismay was aroused by talk of the line item veto and the balanced budget amendment. He often said that the line item veto makes the President a king. As for the balanced budget amendment, he asked why take years to do what should be started now. His ire peaked with the introduction and passage of Gramm-Rudman or “Grim Rudman” as he called it. The idea that Congress would give up its most important and basic spending function to some automatically targeted formula was unthinkable and unconscionable. “Power would be delegated to bean counters. I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to surrender my vote to a bureaucrat’s red pen. My complaint is we’re elected by the people, the taxpayers in our districts to come here a do a job. I don’t think anyone elected me to come here to Washington to push a button to make things work. They want me to make tough decisions. That’s what Gramm-Rudman does, it pushes a button. If you don’t reach a certain target by October 1, Gramm-Rudman goes into effect and cuts across the board. What happens is that you are cutting good programs as well as bad programs. We should have the will, the determination, the guts to make these cuts ourselves.”
Some said that Silvio opposed Gramm-Rudman because it threatened his clout and the programs for which he had a hand in appropriating funds. While he was alarmed by the possibility and the inevitability of this happening, he was more alarmed by the destruction of the constitutional role of the Congress, so alarmed that he joined 10 other colleagues and challenged this legislation before the Supreme Court. He was pleased that two months after the passage of Gramm-Rudman, the Supreme Court struck down the sequestration provisions. “Fortunately, part of that monster, the sequestration provision, was slain by the court today.”
Silvio continued to battle Gramm-Rudman along with the Budget Reconciliation Act of 1974 because they both served to prolong the legislative process and to prevent the Congress from acting in a timely fashion. “We will not only resolve, reconcile, authorize, and appropriate, we will now reconsider. If four or five votes on the same issue aren’t enough to bring this institution to its knees, we will now vote six times.”
Gramm-Rudman further complicated an already difficult process. Unlimited Senate amendments enraged Silvio and frequently provoked Presidential veto. “Any bill that goes over to the Senate has to be amended to death. Everybody has to have a little claim of authorship. If Moses were alive today and he was walking up the Mount with his little tablet and chisel and hammer and banging out the Ten Commandments he’d never reach the top because those Senators over there would be tugging at his robe saying, “Hey, wait a minute, I’ve got an amendment.”
The lack of timeliness created another disaster—the Continuing Resolution—the legislation making temporary appropriations because the regular annual legislation appropriating all government funds was not approved by the start of the fiscal year. Continuing Resolutions were needed every year for several years in a row. In the midst of the 1984 Presidential campaign he said:
“For two days now the political gurus have debated the Louisville debate over and over again. This Congress is determined to debate anything but the Continuing Resolution. Now Mr. Speaker, I want to ask you the question. Are we better off than we were two weeks ago? After two hours and hours of conferences and four extensions. The Conferees are still in Senate 207 sitting on their, well I can’t say it, but in rhymes with the almost extinct fish, the bass. One of the most important jobs this Congress is elected to perform is passing the Federal Budget. We are now 10 days into the Fiscal Year. We haven’t approved the Continuing Resolution let alone a regular Appropriations package. We become the laughingstock, day in and day out. It’s the same old question. Not where’s the beef, but where’s the pork. Let’s get the pig in the pen and the show on the road.”
Year after year he introduced legislation to repeal Gramm-Rudman and the Budget Act of 1974 saying in one debate, “we’re in a morass, we’re in a barrel of molasses, we can’t legislate.” Not only did Continuing Resolutions become annual affairs but also they took more and more time to get resolved. In 1987 it appeared that the Congress might have to stay in session through Christmas, a frightening thought to Silvio who so looked forward to being with all of his family at home in Pittsfield. At 1:00 a.m. during the debate he gave an eloquent assessment of the situation and its effects, concluding with one of his poems to urge the Congress to act and act now.
“Mr. Speaker, we’re considering a Conference Agreement that provides $450 billion for the Appropriations bills for the remainder of the fiscal year. We should be discussing the fiscal and policy issues in that agreement. But we won’t talk about the issues. We’ll talk about a legislative process that denies the members of this House the opportunity to vote on these issues. We’re going to have one vote on these issues. We’re going to have one vote on the Conference Agreement of over 2,000 pages which not a single member has read or understands. Who’s responsible for this? In Pogo’s immortal words, “We have met the enemy and it is us.” We created the Budget Act. We created Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. We created televised proceedings, Political Action Committees, party caucus rules and other reforms which expose members to pressure from special interests. We created a process where it would be difficult under the best of circumstances for a majority to lead effectively. The members of this House are intelligent, honorable men and women who have come here to make public policy and who will make responsible decisions in an open process if given that opportunity. If we continue to deny them that opportunity they will leave public life as many have done already and we will have denied this House and our Country an entire generation of new, bright leaders. We don’t enact Appropriations Bills because we have the Budget Act and Gramm-Rudman-Hollings which we use so effectively to give the appearance of a timely and responsible legislative process. I’ve drafted a bill to repeal those two laws. Dozens of members have come to me on the floor and said, “You’re right.” I have one co-sponsor, my good friend from Indiana, John Myers, and I have picked up another tonight. That tells you all you need to know about the problem and solution. Mr. Speaker, that concludes my participation in the ritual flogging of this process. I take this problem and my job very seriously, but I can’t say the same for the most of the proposed solutions.
I scratched out as I sat here something on the lighter side and it goes something like this:
’Twas four nights before Christmas and all through the House
Every member sat waiting until the coming of the cows.
The President pondered, black pen in hand.
What Congress is doing I don’t understand.
When the fiscal year started over two months ago.
The people expected a Christmastime show.
The Senate has dawdled at the pace of a snail.
The House has responded with a long anguished wail.
Is there any one person who can rescue our cause?
The answer was clear, it would be old Santa Claus.
Then out of the dome there arose such a clatter.
I sprang from the well to see what was the matter.
Away through the chamber I flew on my cart.
Down the hall, up the ramp then I stopped with a start.
There up in the scaffolding high in the air.
Was a livid St. Nick who cried with despair.
O Whitten, O Natcher, O Michel, O Wright.
O Conte, O Foley let’s finish tonight.
His warning was heeded on a spirited note.
All members lined up to cast their final vote.
And then the two bills tied up in the sleigh.
The members all cheered and he went on his way.
And I heard him exclaim and he flew out of sight.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”
While no one in the Congress worked harder or longer than Silvio, he dreaded becoming bogged down in the same matters over and over. The process had overtaken the issues. He offered practical clear-cut solutions. “I have a simple way. It’s so simple I can’t get anybody to support me. At the beginning of the year we get a projection of the revenue. That is the target to live within for the 13 Appropriations bills. We change the Rules of the House so that all 13 bills would be brought to the desk and voted on together. That would give us the necessary discipline to live within.”
It was his view that the deficit could only be cured by hard work, hard choices, difficult cuts and higher revenues.