Remembering Jack Brooks
Alan Chvotkin recalls how it was better to work with and not against the smart but tough congressman
Congressman Jack Brooks, who represented the Beaumont area of Texas for more than 42 years until 1995, passed away last week. While many in the federal acquisition community know about him because of the legislation named after him, the "Brooks (ADP) Act," which required the mandatory use of GSA for any agency purchase of information technology, he influenced a wide range of other important federal procurement legislation and governmental policies that are still engrained in the fabric of the procurement process—from budget reform to the enactment of the Inspector General Act of 1978 and the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980, as well as the foundation for the federal government's telecommunications policies.
As a senate staffer on what was then the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee while he was a senior member, and later chairman, of the House Government Reform Committee, I had the opportunity to work with and against Mr. Brooks on a number of items. And I found it was always better to be working with him.
Beyond his legislative prowess, his Marine Corps' "give no slack" approach to everything he did, coupled with his ever-present (and frequently lit) cigar—at a time when smoking was allowed almost everywhere on Capitol Hill—presented an intimidating figure to his opponents, and often his allies.
One example of his style and approach remains vivid in my mind.
For several years I worked for Sen. Lee Metcalf of Montana. Mr. Metcalf's Governmental Affairs Committee subcommittee held the early oversight hearings and then developed the first versions of what ultimately became the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. But my first real experience with Congressman Brooks was on a far less impactful bill dealing with federal advisory committees.
The House had conducted hearings looking at the proliferation of federal advisory committees in the executive branch and the lack of any controls, transparency, reporting or balanced representation. It passed legislation to restrict their use. The Senate had similar concerns with the agencies' use, but took a less restrictive approach. A conference committee was formed to reconcile the differences.
Before the formal conference met, Mr. Brooks and his staff director met with Mr. Metcalf, his staff director and me to discuss the options available. After a brief staff presentation, the two members agreed on an alternative approach that satisfied both leaders. With this agreement in hand, they agreed that only minor procedural steps would be necessary to finalize it— the conference committee would ratify their decision, then the House and Senate would pass the agreement and, finally, the president would sign the bill. As a student of the legislative process then and now, I was silently amazed at how seemingly cavalier those members were in estimating the challenge of moving forward.
When the formal conference committee was called to order, Mr. Brooks was "elected" chairman of the conference unanimously and without debate. After a very short staff review of the key principles in each bill, Mr. Brooks outlined the alternative that he and Sen. Metcalf had agreed to. No member raised any objection. But the House Legislative Counsel, sitting in the well of the dais along with the three of us staffers, raised a concern that the alternative presented was beyond the conferees’ scope of authority permitted by the congressional rules.
It may have been the right interpretation but it was certainly the wrong place and the wrong person to have raised it with. Looking out over his glasses and ever-so-slowing pulling his unlit cigar from his mouth, Mr. Brooks leaned out over the dais and focused coldly and exclusively on that House counsel. "I determine the scope of conference in the House and Mr. Metcalf determines the scope of conference in the Senate," Mr. Brooks lectured. He didn't wait for a response and all of us in the room were glad that he didn't get one. He banged the gavel once: "Do any members of the conference have any questions? Hearing none, the agreement is adopted and the conference is adjourned." Mr. Brooks didn't waste time. Gavel to gavel was no more than 15 minutes. And, as he had presumed, both chambers adopted the alternative and the president signed the bill.
I saw that Brooks' approach in other policy and legislative issues that he engaged in, some of which I was involved in as both a congressional staffer and then in the private sector, and some of which I was (thankfully) not. He was tough, but with a keen sense of what was right and what was politically achievable. He had a broad command of the role of government and knew of many examples when government could be used for good. But he also had no tolerance for the misuse of government by anyone in or outside of government, as shown by his tenacity in pursuing legislation that statutorily created the inspectors general and, among his more infamous actions on the Judiciary Committee, his leadership in investigating and seeking the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.
During his tenure in Congress, I saw repeatedly the truth of the adage that it was always better to work with Jack Brooks than to work against him.