LAST MONDAY, Rep. Jamie Whitten, a Mississippi Dixiecrat, I mean Democrat, set a record. He served his 18,325th day in the House of Representatives.
I hated to see this for a couple of reasons. For one, I remember fondly the man who held the old record, sort of the Babe Ruth of the House, you could say. That was Carl Vinson of Georgia. I think I was in the House press gallery the day in 1964 that he broke the previous record.
The second reason I'm not too thrilled is that I remember fondly the man Jamie Whitten had to beat to stay in Congress this long -- and how he beat him. The man was Frank Smith. He was that most unusual of Mississippi politicians in the 1960s, an actual living, breathing non-racist demagogue -- and man enough to admit it.
In 1962, Mississippi lost a seat in the House of Representatives. Smith's and Whitten's districts were merged. Whitten made Smith out to be some sort of subversive. He called him a "traitor" to "our Mississippi way of life." You know what that meant, right?
Whitten won, and now he has become the Hank Aaron of longevity. Meaning no disrespect to Aaron.
Whitten has been in the House since 1941, has been chairman of the House Appropriations Committee since 1979 and chairman of its rural development subcommittee since 1949! He is truly the king of farm-related pork barrel. Opponents of term limits point to him as proof that seniority can bring home the bacon. The Washington Post recently noted that Mississippi is 33rd in federal taxation but 22nd in per capita share of federal spending.
Whitten is partly responsible for that. So, too, were the former Mississippi affronts to term limits: Senators James Eastland and John Stennis. The latter was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Between the two of them, they served 77 years in the Senate.
What has all this seniority and power availed Mississippi? Well, in 1940, the year before that trio began congregating in Washington, Mississippi was the 48th poorest of the 48 states in per capita income in the nation. Now it is is 50th out of 50.
Only a coincidence? Look at West Virginia. Its senior senator, Robert Byrd, is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He's been a senator for 33 years. Until the last decade, West Virginia's other senator was Jennings Randolph, who served 26 years and was chairman of the Public Works Committee, which is about as full of pork as the Appropriations committees.
West Virginia was 44th of 50 states in per capita income when Byrd came to the Senate. It's 49th now. Seniority not only does not deliver, it impoverishes.
At least that's my theory. West Virginians and Mississippians are like the fabled bears in Yellowstone Park who, fed by tourist leftovers and handouts, lose the ability to survive by their own initiatives.
Stuffed with U.S. pork, Whitten's and Byrd's constituents just laze away, poorer and poorer.