Mills, Wilbur Daigh
Mills, Wilbur Daigh
(b. 24 May 1909 in Kensett, Arkansas; d. 2 May 1992 in Searcy, Arkansas), influential Democratic congressman (1939-1977) who played a crucial role in tax and welfare policies as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee from 1958 to 1974.
Wilbur Mills was born in Kensett, Arkansas, to Ardra Pick-ens Mills and Abbie Daigh, who owned a country store. Ardra was also a prominent local banker and one of the town’s elite citizens. Wilbur had two younger siblings. After finishing high school, Mills attended Hendrix College and graduated in 1930. He then entered Harvard Law School, where he had trouble adjusting to the social environment, but after a rocky start his grades improved. He left Harvard in 1933, before graduating, in order to work as a cashier for his father during the Great Depression. Soon after, Mills was admitted to the state bar. One year after returning to Kensett, he launched his political career by winning election as probate judge for White County. Mills surprised the long-time incumbent Foster White through an effective campaign that focused on ending corruption and reducing public spending. Fulfilling his campaign promises, he devoted his first year to cutting the county debt. On 27 May 1934 Mills married his high school sweetheart, Clarine (“Polly”) Billingsley. The couple had two daughters.
In 1938 Mills was elected to Congress by the Second District of Arkansas, which had a largely white and rural population. The district was one of the poorest in the United States, with voters having low incomes and little education; unions were virtually nonexistent until 1960. Immediately upon entering Congress, Mills earned a reputation as a workhorse, rarely attending parties and spend-
ing up to twelve hours a day in the office. The norms of Congress at this time encouraged deference to senior members and specialization. Mills adhered to both customs by voting along party lines, defending key Democratic provisions, and mastering the intricacies of taxation. He supported the anticommunist campaign at home and abroad as well as federal spending on Social Security, highway development, and unemployment assistance. At the same time, Mills was a fiscal conservative who insisted that government had to provide services prudently to avoid tax hikes and deficits. Like most southern Democrats, he opposed civil rights legislation. Most white constituents in his district opposed federal intervention in this issue.
Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, a Democrat from Texas, took Mills under his tutelage and in 1942 placed him on the Ways and Means Committee, which had jurisdiction over Social Security, income taxation, welfare, and trade. In 1950 Mills gained the attention of policymakers by working closely with the Social Security Administration’s Wilbur Cohen and Robert Ball and Chief Actuary of Social Security Robert Myers. Mills helped craft the Social Security Amendments of 1950, which extended coverage to millions of farm and domestic workers and established the pay-as-you-go finance system. As chairman of a Joint Economic Committee subcommittee on fiscal policy, Mills introduced Congress to a community of policy experts who supported using tax policy to foster economic growth.
Following the death of Jere Cooper, a Democratic representative from Tennessee, Mills became chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 1957. Moving forward with a proposal to extend unemployment compensation benefits in 1958 through an unorthodox financial scheme, Mills suffered an embarrassing defeat. But after his difficult start, Mills solidified his position by not releasing legislation from his committee until he knew it would pass. While this caution resulted in a successful record, it also frustrated fellow lawmakers who felt that Mills blocked legislation.
There were several additional means through which he enhanced his power. In 1958 and 1959, for example, Mills gained widespread praise for holding groundbreaking hearings on reforms to close tax loopholes. To increase his influence, Mills eliminated Ways and Means subcommittees while making effective use of the “closed rule,” which banned floor amendments to committee legislation. Mills teamed up with the Wisconsin congressman John Byrnes, the ranking Republican on Ways and Means, to design bipartisan compromises. Finally, the chairman used “members bills,” small provisions in the tax code granted to particular congressmen, in exchange for their support of future legislation.
Unlike many others who held the chairmanship, Mills gained a reputation as a fiscal expert. He worked closely with policy experts such as Robert Myers and Laurence Woodworth, head staff for the Joint Committee on Income Taxation. Two of his most important relationships were with Wilbur Cohen, a key policymaker in the Social Security Administration, and Stanley Surrey, a leading income tax policymaker who served as assistant secretary of Treasury throughout the 1960s. Those who testified during Ways and Means hearings frequently found themselves being grilled by the chairman on the minutia of their proposals. His reputation as a fiscal expert helped blunt the impact of his opposition to civil rights, although his stance proved damaging at those times when he was a potential candidate for Speaker of the House, a justice on the Supreme Court, or president of the United States. Within the tax community, however, Mills had influence in policy-making that extended beyond the formal prerogatives of his position.
Between 1958 and 1974, the fiscally conservative Mills played an important role in many key pieces of legislation. He struggled to balance the demands for macroeconomic policy and social welfare with the need for budgetary restraint. In 1964, Mills changed his position and supported legislation that reduced taxes by more than $10 billion. He changed positions after President Lyndon Johnson agreed to cut spending and to make the tax cuts permanent. Similarly, after years of opposing Medicare on the grounds that it threatened Social Security, Mills crafted the final Medicare and Medicaid legislation in 1965. The program’s jer-rybuilt design was an intentional effort by Mills to overcome the opposition of physicians and to protect the fiscal soundness of Social Security. The final legislation creating Medicare and Medicaid, designed by Mills in a surprise last-minute compromise, was more expansive than anything the Kennedy or Johnson administrations had proposed. When President Johnson pushed for a tax surcharge to fund the war in Vietnam and to curb inflation, Mills bottled up the legislation for two years until Johnson agreed in 1968 to accept steep spending cuts in his domestic programs. In 1969, Mills helped guide loopholes-closing tax reform through both chambers of Congress.
In 1972, Mills tried his hand at presidential politics. Although a handful of pundits were optimistic about a moderate southerner in the Democratic primaries, Mills fared poorly in New Hampshire. He dropped out of the race soon after. During the campaign, Mills’s technocratic reputation suffered when he reversed his position on a number of key policies, including his decision to support revenue sharing and an expansion of Social Security. These uncharacteristic reversals—based on obvious political motivations, and accompanied by revelations of suspicious campaign contributions—fueled intense criticism of the chairman. Mills was also the target of a congressional reform movement in the 1970s that aimed to open the legislative process to the public and to weaken powerful committees such as Ways and Means. Meanwhile, Mills gradually succumbed to alcoholism and addiction to the painkillers he took for severe back problems beginning in the late 1960s.
Scandal ultimately brought Mills down. In October 1974, the U.S. Park Police pulled over a speeding car in which Mills was a passenger. After the car stopped, a woman jumped out and ran into the Tidal Basin. Mills followed to pull her out. A cameraman who heard the police radio reports captured the arrest on film. The media soon revealed that Mills was having an affair with the woman, a local stripper whose stage name was “Fanne Fox, the Argentine Firecracker.” The story accelerated a shift in coverage within the media toward the private lives of politicians. The contrast with his professional persona before the incident made the scandal even more shocking. Although Mills was reelected in November, he could not seem to control himself. He staggered onto the stage of Fanne Fox’s first public appearance in a Boston strip club before a roomful of stunned reporters. The following day, the Democratic Caucus stripped Ways and Means of many of its key powers, including the ability to make committee assignments for the party, and it forced Mills to resign as chairman. After leaving Congress in 1977, Mills spent the rest of his life working for a prominent Washington, D.C., law firm and appearing around the country to speak about the dangers of alcohol abuse. Mills died in Arkansas and is buried in Kensett Cemetery.
Wilbur Mills was one of the last giants from a political era dominated by powerful congressional committee chairmen. Mills embodied an era when specialized expertise was valued in American culture, so much that the chairman of the Ways and Means staked his reputation on his fiscal expertise and not just on his ability to broker deals. His career reflected that system’s virtues—namely its ability to produce bipartisan compromises and federal programs with limited budgetary impact—as well as its problems, such as the way it curtailed public participation and favored senior legislators. Legislative moderates such as Mills gradually disappeared from both parties in the next two decades. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom about an “imperial presidency,” Mills’s career is representative of an era when Congress was extremely powerful in shaping policymaking from inception to implementation.
The collection of Mills’s professional and personal papers is held at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. The House Ways and Means Papers are stored at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The two books that cover Mills’s career are John Manley, The Politics of Finance: The House Committee on Ways and Means (1970) and Julian E. Zelizer, Taxing America: Wilbur D. Mills, Congress, and the State, 1945-1975 (1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (3 May 1992).
Julian E. Zelizer