Six Who Held the Gavel Reflected Their Times

Posted February 19, 2010 at 2:41pm

The last history of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was written in 1969, when the panel — then known as the Labor and Public Welfare Committee — was marking its centennial. It was born as the Education Committee in 1869, and was known as the Education and Labor Committee from 1884 to 1947, then was called the Labor and Public Welfare Committee from 1947 to 1977, became the Human Resources Committee from 1977 to 1979, then became the Labor and Human Resources Committee in 1979, and took on its current name 11 years ago.

While it may not have as high a profile as some other committees on Capitol Hill — and none of its chairmen ever became president, though some have tried — it has an interesting roster of ex-leaders. The only woman to serve as chairman was former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.), who ran the committee from 1995 to 1997.

One chairman most Members would probably like to forget is the late Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.), who held the gavel from 1971 to 1981 and oversaw two committee name changes. Williams was a reliable ally of organized labor and wrote many pro-labor and education bills. But in 1980, he was convicted of bribery and conspiracy in the ABSCAM scandal for taking bribes in an FBI sting operation. Just days before the Senate was set to vote on his expulsion in 1982, Williams resigned, and he later did prison time.

Here are mini-profiles of six other committee chairmen:

Charles Drake (R-Mo.)

The first chairman of the Education Committee spent four short years in the Senate at the aftermath of the Civil War and headed the new committee from 1867 to 1870. He made a passionate speech in favor of suffrage for African-Americans in 1870, saying, “If ever a race displayed patience, forbearance, fortitude, courage, fidelity and truth, that race has. If ever a race showed itself worthy of full citizenship, that race has.” Drake resigned from the Senate to become chief justice of the U.S. Court of Claims, a position he held until 1885.

Henry Blair (R-N.H.)

Tied with Harrison Williams for second-longest-serving chairman of the committee, Blair held the gavel from 1881 to 1891. After four years in the House — during which he introduced the first prohibition amendment in Congress — he was elected to the Senate in 1879 and served for a dozen years. Upon retirement, he declined an opportunity to become a U.S. District Court judge and instead accepted a position to be a government envoy to China. But the Chinese government refused to recognize him, and his stint was short-lived. He served a final House term from 1893 to 1895.

Hugo Black (D-Ala.)

Black’s time as committee chairman was short: 1935-1937. But after serving in the Senate for 11 years, he was nominated by President Franklin Roosevelt to the Supreme Court, where he served until just a week before his death in 1971. Although a member of the Ku Klux Klan as a young man and an opponent of some civil rights legislation during his time in Congress, he evolved into a leading supporter of FDR’s New Deal programs and later became a champion of civil liberties and civil rights on the high court. As chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, he proposed a federal minimum wage in 1937 and a 30-hour work week. Although that measure failed, it was seen as the precursor of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which became law after he moved to the Supreme Court.

Robert Taft (R-Ohio)

“Mr. Republican,” Taft, the son of former President William Howard Taft, served as chairman from 1947 to 1949, midway through his 14-year Senate career. A leading “Main Street” conservative at a time when the GOP had a strong Eastern establishment wing, Taft ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination three times, coming painfully close in 1952. As chairman of the Labor and Public Welfare Committee in 1947, he passed the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, which continues to define national labor law to this day. He became Majority Leader in 1953 but only served for seven months before his death in July of that year. In 1959, the memorial in his honor opened on the Senate side of the Capitol.

Jim Jeffords (first R-, then I-Vt.)

Jeffords’ switch from Republican to Independent in the middle of 2001 single-handedly threw control of the Senate from the Republicans to the Democrats. It also ended Jeffords’ four-year tenure as chairman of the committee (the panel, at Jeffords’ direction, became the HELP Committee in 1999). After Jeffords switched parties, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) reclaimed the HELP gavel — and Jeffords was rewarded with the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which he held until his retirement in 2006.

Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.)

The “liberal lion,” who also chaired the Judiciary Committee during his 46-plus years in the Senate, is the longest-serving chairman of the HELP Committee in its 131-year history. He held the gavel from 1987 until Republicans took control of the Senate in 1995, got it again after Jeffords handed Senate control over to the Democrats in 2001, and took it again after Democrats regained control in 2007 after losing it in 2003. Kennedy worked on an array of health care and pro-labor legislation during his long career, and he was also a chief Democratic proponent of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education legislation. But he did not live to see his goal of universal health care coverage come to fruition — in fact, many advocates of health care reform believe his yearlong illness leading up to his death in 2009 hampered their efforts to pass a bill.