Jimmy Carter photo

Interview in "Congressional Quarterly"

August 24, 1976

Q. You were talking recently that a President more attuned to Congress might possibly be able to get more out of Congress than one who is not, such as Gerald Ford. It might be more productive in a legislative way. Are you really talking about a Democratic President might get more out of a Democratic Congress?

Governor Carter. Yes. I think a major portion of the problem has been that the attitude of the Presidents we've had has not been conducive to cooperation with the Congress. I think we could have had Republican Presidents who would have much more consistently cooperated with congressional leaders. I believe that Presidents Nixon and Ford both have perhaps deliberately severed the normal relationships with Congress in the initial stages of preparation of major policies on domestic or foreign affairs. And this is something that I have found as a governor to be very serious as a problem. My own inclination has always been when I had a major proposal to put forward, in the initial, embryonic stages of that proposal to work it out as best I could with the congressional or legislative leaders.

Q. Are you really saying though that the difference between yourself and Gerald Ford or Richard Nixon is that you are a Democrat and you'd be able to work better for that reason?

Governor Carter. I think that's a part of the problem. But I remember when President Truman, for instance, was in office, on foreign affairs he had a very strong Secretary of State. But there was a general feeling around the country, that I think was accurate, that there was strong bi-partisan support within the Congress. And as you know, this revolved around Senator Vandenberg on the Republican side, Senator George on the opposite side. So, I believe, obviously, that having a Democrat in the White House and a Democrat Congress is obviously a helpful circumstance, but it's not the only factor.

Q. I'd like to come to that in just a moment. First of all, you yourself have said that the public holds Congress in a low esteem. How do you account for that?

Governor Carter. Individual members of Congress are held in very high esteem within their own districts, or their own states. Congress as a body suffers in public opinion polls, where I delivered my opinion, because there is no clear voice to defend congressional action. In recent months, with the total absence of leadership in the White House, there's been a constant disharmony or squabbling between the President and the Congress. The President can speak with one single voice. He can explain his position, whether it's right or wrong, and the American people hear it There's not one person in the Congress of 535 members who can express a viewpoint on an argument clearly. So I think this makes Congress look inherently worse in the minds of the public when there is a disagreement or lack of cooperation between the White House and Congress.

Historically, when the Congress' reputation has been high in the public opinion polls, it's been during those eras when there's been a maximum amount of cooperation between the White House and Congress.

Q. Would you also add that it's been during those eras when there's been strong leadership in Congress, assertive leadership?

Governor Carter. That was the case, notably, when Eisenhower was in the White House, a relatively dormant President, and of course you had a remarkable and unprecedented cooperation between Lyndon Johnson in the Senate and Speaker Sam Rayburn in the House. They were compatible with one another. So I think that's a circumstance that's very rare on the American political scene. Our founding fathers had never thought that Congress would lead this nation. Congress is inherently incapable of unified leadership. That leadership has got to come from the White House. And in the absence of that leadership, the country drifts. That's what it's been doing lately. I think that when Congress has come up in recent months with proposals, sometimes faulty, sometimes fumbling, but sincere, to deal with problems like unemployment or inflation, or housing or education, or jobs, or energy; with the total absence of leadership in the White House, they've done a very good job. But if they had cooperation from the White House, which we will have next year if I'm elected, then I think these problems can be resolved and that difficult questions can be answered.

Q. Another reason that’s been offered for the poor standing in the public opinion polls is weak leadership on the part of the President and congressional leaders. Do you agree with that and do you think the Congress needs stronger leadership?

Governor Carter. No, I don't agree with that. The attitude of modem politicians, whether they're in governors' offices or state legislatures, or in Congress, is that they don't want to be dominated by other political figures because of seniority or even because of position. And I think the innovative attitude of the new Members of Congress that have come along in recent years, over several election periods, is going to continue. And I think that they never want to go back to a strong, dominant Speaker of the House or strong, dominant committee chairpersons, who wouldn't let the individual members have a major role. But I really believe, I believe this is objective and not just subjective, is that the Congress is looking for strong leadership in the White House to make major comprehensive proposals on welfare reform, tax reform, health care, government reorganization, and so forth, and then let the Congress in its legitimate constitutional authority dispose of those proposals as it sees fit, working harmoniously with the White House. But the leadership has got to come from the White House. That's historically been the situation in our country. I don't believe that the Congressional members want to go back to the kind of leadership in the Congress that can dominate them and subjugate individual members even though they might be relatively junior, as far as seniority goes.

Q. How do you specifically answer President Ford's charge in his acceptance speech and elsewhere that the Democratic majority has been vote hungry, free spending, and that his 55 vetoes to that date have been of extravagant and unwarranted legislation and that saved the taxpayers billions and billions of dollars, as he said.

Governor Carter. That's ridiculous. Under Nixon, who was a relatively strong President, the Congress cut back his budgets $20 billion. Ford has made no substantive proposals that I remember at all in dealing with acknowledged problems in the country. And in the absence of any leadership at all in the White House, the Congress has tried to move. Under Nixon and Ford, we've had an average of more than $24 billion in deficits every year. Under Johnson and Kennedy, when we had a Democratic Congress there too, the average deficit was less than $4 billion a year. So with gross mismanagement based on an erroneous emphasis on tight constraint on the economy, let unemployment go where it will, we've cut down drastically the revenues for the federal government. I think that's a major origin of our very serious deficits under the Republican Administration. So they've had a combination of inadequate attention to problems, very high inflation, very high unemployment, extremely high deficits, and there's no way legitimately that Ford or Nixon can shift that responsibility to the Congress. Other than that, I think his statement was accurate.

Q. I gather that you are aiming for a balanced budget at some point.

Governor Carter. Exactly.

Q. Do you have any idea how, when that might come about?

Governor Carter. I've tried to be very conservative and assess different opinions that I get from my economic advisers, and I would say that before I finish my term, in the year 1980, we will have a balanced budget. And that's based on relatively careful projections of unemployment, inflation, and average increase in our gross national product per year. It also, by the way, meets every commitment that I have made to the American people on services to

Q. What I was speaking of was one of your first official contacts with Congress will be the fiscal '78 budget. How much impact do you expect to have on that, and what is your timetable for developing that?

Governor Carter. When I'm inaugurated, if I'm elected, I'll be prepared to make my recommendations to the Congress on modifications or proposals in the fiscal year '78 budget.

Q. Do you have a specific timetable for developing that?

Governor Carter. We are now working oh that approach. My staff members have contacted budget leaders in the House and Senate, and we're trying to assess the expected amount of revenue to be coining into the federal treasury over the entire four year period. To begin with a balanced budget, at the timetable that I have described to you, work back from that year by year, to establish priorities, to eliminate unnecessary programs, and this would be done very early after I'm inaugurated, if I'm elected.

Q. Do you have any specific ideas of how large the fiscal 1978 deficit might be?

Governor Carter. Not yet.

Q. Another of your first contacts with Congress would be your State of the Union message. Will the thrust of that message be toward enacting new programs, a new legislative package, or enlarging the existing programs, or will it be to cut back or reform existing programs?

Governor Carter. I can't say. I don't know yet. It will be quite awhile before I start working on my State of the Union message.

Q. That's fair enough. You've indicated elsewhere that you thought you could do better, could have done better with your personal relationships with some of the Georgia State Legislature leaders. What did you learn from that experience with the legislature that you believe you can transfer to Congress and how do you think your personal relationship will develop with the congressional leaders?

Governor Carter. When I was elected governor, I had very little support during the campaign from legislative leaders. I think we had over 250 total membership, and over 15 [sic] of them had endorsed my opponents. So I had to start from scratch. But I had a heavy mandate from the Georgia people. And I emphasized those commitments on government reorganization, tax reform, prison reform, mental health programs, judicial reform, and so forth to the Georgia people during the campaign. The legislative leaders accepted that mandate and although we did have a very innovative, aggressive, and I think successful, administration, my relationships with the legislature were compatible. There were people who opposed everything I did all during the four year period, because of political reasons and otherwise. But there was nothing that I accomplished in the four year period that didn't have to be confirmed and supported by a joint, working relationship with the legislature. The fact that Lester Maddox was the Lieutenant Governor overly emphasized in the public's mind the disharmonies. In general, the major changes were made with complete cooperation between me and the legislature.

Q. You also gained the reputation in Georgia as being a person who would carry through on your legislative proposals with complete vigor?

Governor Carter. Yes. I would.

Q. And friends and critics of yours both characterize you as a stubborn person in some ways. You seem certain to run into some obstacles as you try to get some of the programs you've been talking about through Congress and all the conflicting interests that are in Congress. Just how tough are you prepared to be with Congress when you run into obstacles?

Governor Carter. One of the things that I obviously learned while I was in the governor's office, working with the legislature, it was a very, very independent legislature, by the way, was that the best way to avoid confrontations and showdown votes and the necessity for major compromises, is to work with the members of the Legislative Branch in the initial stages of the preparation of major proposals, as I said earlier. Also, to remind the members of the Legislative Branch that, to the extent that my election was successful, the American people join me in those commitments. Also, during the campaign period itself, which is approaching now, I'll be helping, and being helped by, many of the candidates for Congress. The other point that I should make is this. We must be sure that when a proposal is made for a change in our domestic or foreign governmental life, that that proposal can be justified in an open debate, and the stripping away of secrecy that in the past has concealed the selfish influence of special interest groups I consider to be a major factor in the passage of both substantive and advisable legislation. Now, if after all those emphases are consummated and my voice to the American people is heard clearly, if we have a difference of opinion in the Congress that I consider to be important, I would never hesitate to go directly to the American people with my side of the debate, and through that mechanism hope to influence the Congress to accept my position. And I believe that if I'm right, if the position is clear enough to be understood by the American people, that's the best approach to it. But that would only be a last resort after I've exhausted every other means to cooperate quietly and maturely with the members of Congress. '

Q. You apparently believe then Lyndon Johnson's advice that Congress should be in on the takeoff if they're going to be in on the landing ...

Governor Carter. Absolutely. And I believe we need to have one other factor implemented for a change. And that is to let the Congress, Members, leaders or otherwise, get maximum credit for any improvements that are brought into being. The President is naturally the focus of public attention. There's no way to take away the image of the President as a leader. And I believe it's very helpful to the President himself and to the country to let individual Members of Congress be the ones to announce in their own districts and states as early as possible their support for programs that might be in the process of evolution. I would do this to the maximum degree possible.

Q. Do you have any preference as to who will become the next leaders of the 95th Congress?

Governor Carter. Yes.

Q. Who are they?

Governor Carter. I would never let anyone know what my preferences are.

Q, But you do have preferences?

Governor Carter. To some degree. This is something that I will never become involved in. I have private thoughts about it, but I'm perfectly willing to abide by the decisions of the Members of Congress. I'll never ask a Member of Congress to vote for one person or another as the new congressional leaders are chosen.

Q. Could you characterize the kinds of persons you'd like to see?

Governor Carter. No.

Q. A lot of people on Capitol Hill are certain that you are going to be the next President, and I understand a lot of Members are calling your faff offering help.

Governor Carter. Yes, that's true.

Q. Would you say your honeymoon with Congress has already begun?

Governor Carter. I think so. I would like to hope that my so-called honeymoon with Congress could extend throughout my term. I know from experience that there will be heavy concentration toward the end of the term on the more controversial proposals. Because the ones where there is little controversy are naturally more likely to pass very early. But I would be tenacious, and I would be open in my evocations to the American people of my proposals, and I think that if I retain my respect for Congress, which is a natural part of my being, and express this respect and desire for mutual consultation, that the honeymoon period can be extended for quite a long time.

Q. Who are you turning to during this period for your advice about Congress?

Governor Carter. Well, of course, the Georgia delegation would naturally be close to me. I've known them all my political life and the existing leaden of Congress, Senator Mansfield, of course, and Robert Byrd in the Senate, and the Speaker, and Tip O'Neill in the House. Some of the committee chairmen have offered their help to me, and I have accepted it with gratitude. But I've not tried to go into the congressional area and single out special persons. I've tried to accept advice from all of them. And if they have a committee staff member, for instance, who's particularly knowledgeable about welfare, or energy, or transportation, I've enmeshed their contribution with that of my own issues analysis staff as best I could. Whether I get elected or not, this is very helpful to me in putting forth to the American people for better understanding the stands on issues that are important to this country.

Q. Do you feel that you have any effect on legislation at this point, already?

Governor Carter. No, I haven't tried to. I think that to the extent that I have presented my views to the American people in recent months that there has been an effect, but I've never tried to call up individual members of the House or Senate to influence their vote on legislation. I don't think it's proper for me to act like I'm already President.

The one exception has been the voting registration bill. I personally favor universal voter registration without any obstacle at all to somebody becoming registered. But I know it's late, and this is a subject on which I've spoken out quite at length, but with the one exception, there has been no involvement on how the legislation should be voted on.

Q. You have, however, passed the word that you would prefer to see a delay in the building of the B-l Bomber?

Governor Carter. I haven't passed any word to Members of Congress except through my own public statements.

Q. Different Presidents have handled their contacts, their regular contacts with Congress in different ways. Woodrow Wilson used an emissary, the Postmaster General, Albert Burleson. Truman had a liaison staff, a fairly small staff, but he preferred to deal face to face with people. And I guess Eisenhower was the first one who established an extensive liaison office. How do you—and then there was the Kennedy-Johnson highly organized, aggressive liaison staff under Lawrence O'Brien. How do you see your liaison?

Governor Carter. I would like to have a combination of the Kennedy, Johnson and Eisenhower effort, plus much more personal participation of my own. I understand there's a room, for instance, in the national Capitol that's set aside as the President's room. And I would like to go there for the signing of major legislation which was the custom prior to Franklin Roosevelt's term. And my present thinking, which I have not firmed yet, would be for me to go to the Capitol every now and then to spend a day or half-day in that office, within the Capitol itself, and to make myself more accessible to individual Members of Congress. So I don't want to try to dominate the Congress, or to have an undue influence, but I want them to know that we represent the same people. There's no one in any congressional district in the nation that won't be my constituent if I become President. And I want that general sense of cooperation and mutual respect and mutual trust to pervade my whole attitude toward Congress throughout the four years. So I think just personal moves on my part—treating Congress, Members as though they were Presidents themselves, returning their telephone calls, letting my staff members respect them thoroughly, dealing with the problems that they present to me, making my own presence felt in the Capitol building itself on occasion, would be contributions that might alleviate the present disharmony and total separation of the White House on the one hand and the Congress on the other.

Q. I guess we're running out of time. One of the main things that the White House liaison staff does, or one of the major causes of their workload, and also the liaison agent in the agencies, each of the departments has a fairly sizeable legislative liaison office, most of their workload consists of doing favors for Members of Congress. Do you see any reason to cut back on Congressional liaison staffs and any reason to cut back on the amount of, you'll pardon the expression, back-scratching that goes on?

Governor Carter. The thing I would say in response to that is to repeat what I just said, that the constituents of the Congressman or Congresswoman will also be my constituents. And I want to do a good job for them. I also want to be sure that whenever any action is taken in that respect that the action be of such a nature that it can be made known to the public. I would prohibit any interference on the part of White House staff members in the deliberations of judicial affairs, or regulatory agency deliberations for any particular person. I think those kind of deliberations ought to be all open, they ought to be subject to scrutiny by the press and by the public. So with that one caveat, I would certainly do everything I could to meet the needs of my constituents and the constituents of Congress' Members.

Jimmy Carter, Interview in "Congressional Quarterly" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347651