Whitten, Jamie Lloyd

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Whitten, Jamie Lloyd

(b. 18 April 1910 in Cascilla, Mississippi; d. 9 September 1995 in Oxford, Mississippi), Democratic congressman who set the record for length of service in the U.S. House of Representatives, who opposed the environmental movement, and who played a major role in shaping U.S. agricultural policies.

The older of the two children of Alymer Guy Whitten, a farmer and country-store owner, and Nettie Viola Early, Whitten grew up in rural Mississippi. He entered the University of Mississippi in 1927 but left after two years to become principal of a school in his home county at the age of nineteen. He returned to the university in 1930 to study law, but withdrew again after one year and ran successfully for the state legislature. Apparently one year of legal studies was sufficient, for he passed the state bar examination after his first year in the legislature.

In 1933 Whitten was elected district attorney for five counties. On 20 June 1940 he married Rebecca Thompson. They had a son and a daughter.

Whitten’s long congressional career began with victory in a 1941 special election to fill an unexpired term. He joined the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives shortly before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He won reelection twenty-six times, establishing a record for years of service in the House before his retirement in 1995 after over fifty-three years on Capitol Hill.

In Congress, Whitten became a strong advocate of federal spending for agriculture, defense, and public works. Reflecting on his years in Washington toward the end of his career, Whitten attributed the prosperity of the United States to the policy of “meeting local problems with national policies.” As a member of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, he was in a position to impact spending priorities for virtually all of his career.

The congressional seniority system, which awarded power to the longest-serving members of the majority party, combined with Whitten’s remarkable political skills to make him one of Washington’s most powerful individuals. Serving as chairman of the Agriculture Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee from 1949 to 1992 (except for 1953–1954, when the Republicans constituted the majority in the House), Whitten became widely known as “the permanent secretary of agriculture” because of his perennial influence over agriculture policies and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He used his power to maintain the policies initiated under the New Deal, including crop subsidies, soil conservation programs, agricultural research, and rural infrastructure development.

Whitten viewed the environmental movement as a threat to American agriculture. Responding to Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking attack on pesticides in her book Silent Spring (1962), he authored a book entitled That We May Live, published in 1966. In it, he argued that agricultural chemicals are essential to maintaining an abundant supply of food, and that environmental harm can be minimized through common-sense management. The book attracted scant notice, and most copies were bought by the agricultural chemical industry, which had supplied crucial assistance to Whitten in writing it.

As the Democratic Party embraced environmentalism, consumer rights, civil rights, and social welfare in the 1960s and 1970s, Whitten found himself increasingly marginalized within his party. An opponent of civil rights for the first half of his congressional career, Whitten began to modify his position only after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 enfranchised the large African-American minority in his district. In 1969 Whitten was savagely portrayed by journalist Nick Kotz as an inhumane racist willing to let the black agricultural workers of his district go hungry rather than permit the federal government to provide adequate food for them. Kotz contended that Whitten limited participation in the food stamp program to those who could pay and prevented government-sponsored investigations of the extent of hunger.

Whitten’s marginalization within his party invited challenges to his power. The Democratic sweep in the post-Watergate election of 1974 brought a large number of reform-minded Democrats into the House of Representatives. The reformers set out to remake the House, and they achieved a notable victory when they won the right to elect committee and subcommittee chairmen by secret ballot. But when the reformers attempted to remove Whitten from his subcommittee chairmanship, old-fashioned political compromise saved his position: in a negotiated settlement, Whitten agreed to give up his subcommittee’s recently acquired jurisdiction over environmental and consumer policy in exchange for retention of the chairmanship.

After this close call, Whitten began to reposition himself closer to the center of the congressional Democratic Party. “Conditions change,” he told a reporter. “You go with conditions as they are, not like what they used to be.” As he moved toward his party’s center, Whitten revived his influence and began a climb that would take him to the zenith of his power.

In 1979 Whitten, who had almost lost his subcommittee chairmanship four years earlier, was elected chairman of the full Appropriations Committee. From his new post he was in a position to assist other members of Congress with the federal projects they wanted for their districts, and he used his power to aid former foes as well as friends with public works projects. Former Speaker of the House Tom Foley declared that “he has probably helped just about every member of this House with some special local need.” He took care of his own district with agricultural subsidies, roads, health clinics, and federally financed research projects. His most notable public works achievement was the $1.8 billion Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which created a barge route from the Tennessee River to the Gulf of Mexico, much of it running through Whitten’s Mississippi district.

Health problems diminished Whitten’s political effectiveness after he passed the age of eighty, and new members of the House became less inclined to accept his idiosyncrasies. When he had trouble conducting committee meetings and managing legislation on the floor after a rumored stroke, the Democratic caucus took away his committee and subcommittee chairmanships in 1992. In 1994 Whitten announced that he would not be a candidate for a twenty-eighth term. He and his wife left Washington for Charleston, Mississippi, in December 1994. He lived only nine months after his retirement. Death came from complications of chronic cardiac and renal disease. He is buried in Charleston’s City Cemetery.

Whitten was a master of politics behind closed doors. When he found it necessary to bring legislative proposals to the light of public scrutiny, he skillfully resorted to vague language, mumbled speech, and strategic memory lapses to keep journalists and opponents off-balance. A master practitioner of traditional congressional politics, Whitten dominated agricultural policy for four decades. He assured a flow of federal dollars to his own district and built alliances by helping other members of the House with funding for their public works projects. Secure with his constituency, Whitten slowly but successfully adapted to changes in Congress and the nation until his health undermined his capacity to fulfill his duties.

Whitten donated his papers to the University of Mississippi. Published accounts of his congressional career tend to portray him in an unfavorable light. These include Nick Kotz’s Let Them Eat Promises: The Politics of Hunger in America (1969), a portion of which was reprinted as “Jamie Whitten: Permanent Secretary of Agriculture” in Inside the System: A Washington Monthly Reader (1970); as well as Anne Millet’s Jamie L. Whitten, Democratic Representative from Mississippi (1972), part of the multivolume Citizens Look at Congress, prepared by the Ralph Nader Congress Project. An adulatory article, “Celebration of a Life Devoted to Public Service,” was published in Appalachia: Journal of the Appalachian Regional Commission (winter 1992). The Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson has a subject file on Whitten, consisting primarily of newspaper articles. An obituary is in the New York Times (10 Sept. 1995).

Vagn K. Hansen

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