The Education of a Congressman

Morris K. Udall had only been in Washington a few weeks when he wrote Speaker Sam Rayburn an earnestly presumptuous letter urging that Congress implement a mechanism to ensure a balanced budget each year, and that Rayburn appoint a special committee to review the seniority system. Rayburn, unsurprisingly, never replied.

From the first Mo was a vocal critic of the House seniority system, a process, he wrote, "that rewarded longevity, not merit." He was impatient with the "to get along, go along" mentality and the antiquated machinery of Congress, complaining "it's just as hard to repeal bad old laws as it is to pass good new ones." In 1969, with a scant seven and half years' experience, Mo unsuccessfully challenged Speaker John W. McCormack for the speakership (the first Congressman of the 20th century to challenge a sitting Speaker). It was a bold move that cost him, in the short run, political allies, but one of which colleague David Obey (D-WI) said later that it "gave heart to an entire generation" of younger congressmen and broke the back of the seniority system. A year later he ran for majority leader and lost again. In a self-mocking gesture, he turned his "MO" button upside down to read "OW."

During his first month in office, Mo wrote what was to be the first of many newsletters to his Arizona constituents. In over 30 letters written during his first ten years in office, Mo covered topics from gun control to tax reform, welfare, and trade. The newsletters were published as Education of a Congressman in 1972. Lessons of his first year, learned by trial and error, led Mo to write Job of a Congressman on how to set up, staff, and run a congressional office, a book that was widely used as a survival guide for freshman representatives.

His first assignments were to the Interior & Insular Affairs Committee, and what was the lowest spot on the least prestigious committee, Post Office & Civil Service. He used these positions to restructure the postal system (Postal Reorganization Act) and advance the Central Arizona project. During this first decade he served as floor whip for landmark 1964 civil rights legislation, and he supported population control measures, voting rights, and campaign reform. He voluntarily disclosed his personal finances, long before it was customary for politicians to do so, and helped draft the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971 and the Clean Elections Act of 1974, the first major elections reforms since 1925.

Initially a supporter of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, as the war escalated Mo broke with the Johnson administration. In October 1967 Mo came home to Tucson to deliver one of the most difficult speeches of his career – made more difficult by the fact that his brother Stewart was a member of President Johnson's Cabinet. Despite last minute efforts by Johnson's aides to dissuade him, Mo stood before an audience of 1,700 in the University of Arizona auditorium to say, "as plainly and simply as I can that I was wrong two years ago, and I firmly believe President Johnson's advisers are wrong today." One by one he demolished the administration's arguments for war, and when he was done, the audience gave him a standing ovation. Nearly every newspaper in America reported on the speech, including the New York Times. Two years later Mo played a leading role in exposing the massacre of at least 100 civilians by U.S. soldiers at My Lai.

Mo became the House's most prolific author and sponsor of environmental legislation, leading fights for wilderness preservation, surface mining reclamation, nuclear waste management, and archeological resource protection.

As chair of the Interior Committee, Mo led the nine-year battle to preserve 104.3 million acres of federally owned land in Alaska as wilderness, wildlife refuges, national parks and forests, and to protect the interests of Native Alaskans. The legislation pitted conservationists against development interests: oil and gas, mining and timber. The bill's passage in 1980 doubled the size of the national park system and tripled the national wilderness area. More than $1 billion is now spent annually by tourists visiting Alaska's natural wonders.

In the 14 years that Mo was chairman of the House Interior Committee, more than 184 bills affecting Native American interests were enacted into law. Not only was he a fierce advocate for tribal sovereignty, but as chair, Mo was known for "sitting on" bills that undermined Native American treaties and other rights, delaying their progress through the committee. He sponsored the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, putting an end to adoptions that ignored tribal heritage and culture, and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.