by L. T. (Tex) Easley, Fowler C. West and Bernard Brenner
WASHINGTON - At noon on January 3, 1979, the 95th, Congress will officially end its term. With it will end the 42-year House career of a man whose influence on American agriculture and rural life will be felt for generations - W. R. (Bob) Poage.
Poage did not seek reelection in 1979. He retired after more than half a century in State and Federal elective office. He went back in October to his roots in Texas, returning with his wife, Frances, to home on a quiet side street near Cameron Park in Waco.
The 78-year-old Texan, born in Waco on Dec. 28, 1899, has been called the most knowledgeable man in the country on agriculture and related issues. He started his public service at the age of 25 when he was elected to begin 12 years of service in the Texas House and Senate. In November of 1936 he was elected to the U. S. Congress, taking his seat to begin his 42 years in the House in January 1937.
"When I came to Congress, it took two days and nights by train to get to Washington from my Central Texas district," Poage recalls. "Now it takes just a couple of hours' flying time."
There have been other and deeper changes in the intervening years, including many he resisted, but Bob Poage kept abreast of the issues.
When he began, at the start of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's second term, the nation was struggling out of the depression of the early thirties and Congress was concerned with issues including bringing electricity to farms which lay beyond reach of power lines.
When he stepped down, after a Congressional career spanning three wars, historical, social, and political change here and around the world, a technological revolution in agriculture and the arrival of the space age, his last newsletter to constituents centered on an issue which didn't exist when he came to Congress - the struggle to assure adequate energy supplies for the future.
There was, perhaps, a symbol of the changes between Bob Poage's first and last House votes in the way he cast them. In 1937, House clerks droned their way through a leisurely, 45-minute roll call - calling out the name of all 435 members in turn and slowly ticking off their "yea" or "nay" answers. When Poage cast his final vote in October, he slipped a plastic card into an electronic voting device which displays a second-by-second count on scoreboards hung on the walls of the House chamber.
Poage's associates have come to know him as a man of surprisingly wide knowledge, especially on the political, geographical and even geological features of virtually every country in the world. He became a major figure in agriculture, however, primarily because of his encyclopedic knowledge of farming and the agricultural economy, and his understanding of the issues affecting all the interests involved from the grower to the ultimate consumer of farm products in this country and abroad.
Poage first learned about farming and raising livestock while growing up on a farm in Throckmorton County in west Texas. He turned to law after graduating from Baylor University with A.B. and LL.B. degrees, but he never lost direct touch with farming. While serving in the Texas legislature, he shared in operation of a dairy; for decades he has watched over the operation of the family farm on which he was raised; and he also is joint owner of another farm near Waco.
As a freshman Congressman in 1937, Poage was unable to get the place he wanted on the House Agriculture Committee and joined Committees on Census, Immigration and Naturalization, War Claims and Claims. Two terms later, however, he moved to the Agriculture Committee.
Poage's service on the Committee, beginning in January of 1941, spanned 38 years - longer than anyone has ever served on the Committee. Through those years, his knowledge of American and world agriculture made him a seldom-disputed authority in debates on farm problems. With remarkable accuracy, he often reached back during discussions of farm legislation for precise facts and figures - and not a few colleagues who challenged him later had to concede the point. Farm experts, officials and bureaucrats who testified before the Agriculture Committee through the year learned that Poage could remind them - if the occasion arose - that the testimony they were giving was not the same story they had told months or even years before.
Poage regards himself as a conservative who believes that government should interfere in society as little as possible and that one of today's greatest problems is overdependence on the Federal government. That has not, however, steered him away from continuing efforts to provide government protection for the farm economy.
"Virtually all segments of the U. S. economy enjoy some form of federal subsidy, either directly or indirectly," he says.
"In housing and transportation, subsidies mount into billions of dollars. All public and most private housing enjoys either direct subsidy or a financial guarantee of some kind at government expense. Shipbuilding, airlines, and indeed practically all forms of transportation enjoy subsidy. Surely, neither housing nor transportation is more important than food and fiber," Poage argues.
Further, Poage sees government support for farmers as a matter of simple fairness.
"If it were possible for the farmer to produce in a free market and buy in a free market, I would feel that he should likewise sell in a free and unsubsidized market. But the farmer must buy everything he needs, both to produce crops and to support his family, in a controlled market." the Texan says.
Through his decades of service, Poage was instrumental in the passage of scores of laws - some affecting only a small number of people, but many of national and lasting importance.
In addition to his work on basic farm price support legislation, for example, Poage was the author and principal House sponsor of bills including the 1972 Rural Development Act, the 1949 Rural Telephone Act, and the Poage-Aiken Act, a water-sewer aid program for rural communities passed in 1965.
The telephone law helped bring that form of communication for the fist time to millions of homes on farms and ranches, and in villages and small towns.
The Poage- Aiken Act of 1965 authorized Agriculture Department grants to rural communities which -without Federal help - would not to be able to afford the piped-water and sewer systems needed to help them survive
The Rural Development law was a major new charter of authority for government assistance to and cooperation with rural communities in areas ranging from the development of community facilities to attracting new business and industrial jobs. The law was passed after many decades in which Americans moved by the millions from rural areas to overcrowded cities. It spelled out a national policy designed to encourage more and more people to remain in - or move back to - rural areas by helping provide some of the basic facilities needed for healthy communities.
Poage also has been a leading figure in drafting and enacting animal welfare laws. He was chief sponsor in 1958 of the humane slaughter law which still regulates - with amendments added in 1978 - the slaughter of cattle, hogs, and other food animals. In 1965, the Texan sponsored an Animal Welfare Act - updated in 1976 - which requires humane treatment of laboratory animals and regulates the handling of pets in commercial channels.
Poage served in Congress during the administrations of eight Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Jimmy Carter, and some he knew intimately. He knew his fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson, best, and he had high regard for Harry Truman, whom he knew first as a Senator from Missouri. Also, he served in the House with John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, and Gerald Ford.
Recent decades have seen many changes in Congressional procedures, including the erosion of the once traditional seniority system. Poage, who doesn't think many of the changes have improved the quality of legislation, was himself one of several victims in a change in procedures for selecting chairman of House committees.
That blow came in 1975, after Poage had served eight years as Chairman of the Agriculture Committee following 14 years as Vice Chairman under the late Rep. Harold Cooley, D-N.C. When the 94th Congress convened in January, 1975, it included a large contingent of freshmen dedicated to change and Poage became their first target - partly because of an alphabetical quirk.
Democratic House members, including 75 freshmen, met in secret caucus to nominate - in actual effect, to elect - their House Committee chairmen. The younger members were known to be anxious to unseat a number of veterans, but Poage's case came first because the committees were considered in alphabetical order - and Agriculture came first.
The question before the caucus was not which of several potential candidates, including Poage, should be chosen to head the committee. It was, instead, whether Poage should be reinstated. There was no discussion in the closed caucus because Poage's friends felt his reelection was virtually certain although they knew his conservative stands guaranteed some opposition.
Had there been any debate, pro-Poage speakers standing by included the man who succeeded him as Chairman, Rep. Thomas S. Foley of Washington. Also, there were Rep. Barbara Jordan, D-Tex., and the current Secretary of Agriculture, then a Minnesota House member, Rep. Bob Bergland. But the vote came swiftly - and Poage was defeated, 144 to 141.
Poage's next moves gained him the lasting respect of many of those who opposed him and laid the groundwork for the great influence he wielded in his later years in the House. Dropped from the prestige of the chairmanship he had held in what was then a historic action, the veteran Texan called for the election of Foley, then second-ranking Democratic member of the Agriculture Committee, who had been seven years old when Poage entered Congress.
Followed by reporters and photographers, Poage walked from the House chamber to the Agriculture Committee office across from the Capitol. There, after a few minutes, the lawmaker who had often differed with Democratic Caucus positions but never bolted his party, issued a brief statement:
"The caucus has worked its will. I accept its decision. Congressman Tom Foley and I have worked closely together in the past and I know that if named he will make a good Chairman. I shall do all I can to help him and the Committee."
Later, after Foley's selection by the caucus, members of the Agriculture Committee voted unanimously to restore Poage to the post he had held previously - Vice Chairman. He was also named Chairman of the Livestock and Grains subcommittee, which controls legislation dealing with government programs for those crops. To many observers, his personal standing in the House appeared to rise rather than fall in the years that followed.
In 1978, Poage's final year in Congress, he became the chief architect of a major agricultural trade expansion bill.
In his final term, he also teamed with Foley to play a key role in passing the 1977 omnibus farm law, and in engineering the hard compromises which made that program possible. Repeatedly, he hammered home his approach to treating legislative politics as the art of the possible.
"I'd rather get part of something than all of nothing," the Texas told the Agriculture Committee repeatedly. It was a theme he made a trademark, and in the final newsletter of his Congressional career, he used it in explaining why he voted for an energy bill which failed to meet his own goals for decontrolling prices.
"It was better than nothing," Poage's last newsletter concluded, "and I fear that were we to put this off, another Congress would pass a much worse bill. I therefore voted for the bill rather than take all of nothing.'"
Poage takes a dim view of many House "reforms" of recent years - not because one of them cost him his chairmanship four years ago - but because he believes they have weakened the House's ability to legislate effectively.
"The basic changes in Congress, in my judgment, are very bad," he said earlier this year.
"We have practically destroyed the Committee system in the House. The public doesn't realize it, but committees do not function as they did at one time.
"Members now are permitted to have an excessive number of Committee assignments which makes it impossible for them to become well versed in a given area. A Member of Congress can be most useful by becoming somewhat of an expert in one area.
"To make matters worse, there's the caucus system. In our caucuses of Democratic members, we'll decide what the course would be on legislation that's never been ready by anybody. We'll make the decisions before we hear the witnesses. That doesn't achieve anything in the way of sound legislation.
"I think the committee system of legislation that we developed here over a hundred years in the Congress probably reached its height during the Sam Rayburn period. That was the best system of legislation that we've yet devised. Things have generally gone in cycles throughout the years. I'm one of those who hopes the pendulum will swing back.
"It never will go back to just where it was, because that's politics. Politics should never go back to just what you had, but you do change the emphasis and the mode of procedure."
Few members of Congress kept closer touch with their constituents than Poage. He traveled widely around the world, but he spent most of the time when the House was not in session visiting within his home district.
During many recess and adjournment periods, Poage visited countries in all corners of the globe. Once, during the Johnson administration, the late President was told that his fellow Texas was off on a trip to an area Poage had never visited before.
"Be sure Bob has the American flag with him, so he can plant it when he gets there," Johnson reportedly said. "Because if Poage hasn't been there before, it's undiscovered territory."
On the Baylor University Campus, a W. R. Poage Legislative Library Center now under construction will house the congressman's files and those of several other Texas congressmen, as well as a personal office for Poage. A Poage Scenic Parkway is being developed along designated highway routes in the heart of the 11th District. In Temple, a Federal office building bears his name, and a newly-adopted law gave Poage's name to the nation's only pecan research center at Brownwood, Tex.
Just about a year ago Poage announced that he would not seek re-election as he had for the previous 20 Congresses. Standing in front of his home in Waco, with his wife Frances at his side, Poage revealed his deepest feelings about his family and his people as he read the following from his retirement statement:
"My family has always been an inspiration to me. My father was an old-time cowman. I value the livestock tradition. My mother was a frontier homemaker. Her greatest pride was her children, and they knew that she could (and did) work miracles with very little to work from. My wife, Frances, has shared all my problems and disappointments. She has stood with me in failure and success. We regret that we have no children of our own, but we have tried to do for our District what we might have done for our own family."