Rep. John Moss (1913-1997) - An appreciation
By Michael R. Lemov
So, years after he retired from Congress and returned to his beloved California, I interviewed Moss in connection with a book I was writing. What I hoped to find out was why, unlike some politicians, he always took on the big boys.
John and Jean, his wife of 62 years, were living in San Francisco when I interviewed him in March 1996. They had moved from Sacramento because of his severe asthma. He had fought a bout against prostate cancer a year before. In January, he had been operated on for a blockage in an artery, which had caused a couple of strokes. He walked with a cane and weighed only 110 pounds.
Jean told me that the day before they had been at the Post Office. Two young men had approached Moss with literature on behalf of Lyndon LaRouche. The California primary would be held the next week. Moss, always the progressive, answered them firmly. They answered back. His voice rose. Jean thought they might come to blows - this 81-year-old man recovering from a stroke and two young guys.
Moss and I spoke for many hours during that visit. It was a tiring experience. There were so many issues, so many past battles. His voice got weak at times. He had to stop and use an inhalator to counteract his coughing. The asthma, which began when he was a poor kid in Carbon County, Utah, had never really left him. But his heart problems, which were also diagnosed as a child and were one of the reasons the family came to California, seemed to be under control.
A lot of Mossís feeling for the underdog may have come from those early days. He was the son of a coal miner. After his mother died when he was 12, his father abandoned Moss and his older brother. The two brothers went to work and lived together in a loft in Sacramento. He had to quit college and support himself.
Moss wanted to talk about a trip to Viet Nam in the early 1960s. He said when he stepped off the plane, "The hate for Americans was clear. You could feel it in the air." He was there doing a congressional investigation of waste. He found plenty of it. There was no oversight, he said, over the expenditure of billions in U.S. funds. Ships were sitting idle and we were paying thousands of dollars a day for dockage. You could have bought the entire boat in a couple of weeks.
When he flew back to the United States, President Johnson sent a car to the airport and had him driven directly to the White House. A Cabinet meeting was in progress. The issue was whether the war should be expanded by U.S. flights along the Chinese and Thai borders. Johnson turned to Moss, drew a map, and said, "Hereís where I want the planes to fly, John. Not over the Chinese mainland, but nearby. I want them to show some force. What do you think?" Moss said he told Johnson, "The people are not behind us. Expanding the war would be a mistake." Johnson turned away. Moss said, "We had been invited to the White House before that. The invitations stopped coming."
When Moss got to Congress in 1952, he was placed on two obscure committees: Post Office and House Administration. This must have been a disappointment to him, but that was customary treatment for freshman congressmen. When he was on the Post Office and Civil Service Committee that first term, he appears to have ignored the tradition that freshmen remain silent. The chairman of the committee was a Republican, the party controlling Congress in the first year of the Eisenhower administration. The chairman described John as "mousey." I think he must have thought of Moss as a large tomcat lurking down at the far end of the row of congressmen in that hearing room.
Arthur Summerfield, postmaster general, had proposed postal classification legislation, which would establish higher rates of pay for post office workers, and also arbitration and grievance rights. Moss said he had to wait three or four days to get a chance to talk since everything was done in order of seniority. He had a couple of amendments supporting the interests of post office workers. He lost in committee. In the next Congress, with the Democrats in the majority, he went to Howard Colmer, chairman of the House Rules Committee, a Democrat from Mississippi. The bill was coming to the floor. None of the older members of the Post Office Committee seemed able to explain the content of the bill to the satisfaction of the Rules Committee. They called on Moss. Colmer then asked him whether there were any amendments on the floor. Moss said he, in fact, had one or two amendments himself. Colmer said, "Okay, weíll write the rule so you can offer your amendments." This was heady stuff for a second-term congressman. The final rule provided that the gentleman from California would be recognized for two amendments. He was. They passed. People began to notice John Moss.
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Over in the House Administration Committee in Mossís first term, things were different. The committee didnít do much except authorize the budgets of other committees and handle housekeeping matters for the House of Representatives. It was a backwater. John, however, thought that the equipment the members used at the time - typewriters - was obsolete. He wanted to go to electric typewriters. That would cost money. A lot of members were opposed to the expenditure. Moss pushed it. Ultimately, the electric typewriters won. Some might call it the first step in the electronic revolution in the House of Representatives. But, Moss just wanted to get those letters out to the folks back home. Many members were appreciative.
At the end of Mossís first term, he decided that the Commerce Committee was the place to be. He told me he wanted Commerce because it had jurisdiction over all aspects of interstate and foreign trade. Moss, who had been involved in several businesses in Sacramento, thought he knew something about commerce. The committeeís jurisdiction included transportation, communications, the securities markets, trade, consumer protection, weather, time, energy and environment and health. No wonder Moss wanted on. When the selections of the Democratic Caucus were announced, he was disappointed. Moss said House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) always liked to pick Texans for key committees. So Moss, just starting his second term, went over to the Capitol to see Rayburn. From the way he describes it, he reminded Rayburn in no uncertain terms that there was no Californian on the Commerce Committee and that California was "almost" as important to the party as Texas. Moss told Rayburn, he had the nomination of both parties; that he came from the growing northern part of the state; that he had the skills and interest to handle the job and that he wanted it. Rayburn, whom Moss greatly admired and worked closely with in later years, was non-committal. A day or two later, Moss got a call from the chair of the California delegation. "Youíre on the Commerce Committee, John. What the heck did you say to Rayburn?"
It was unusual for a young congressman to face up to the Speaker and survive. Moss seemed, even early in his career, willing to stand up to people.
Moss talked about his fierce struggle with Harley Staggers of West Virginia for the chairmanship of the powerful Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, which Moss eventually took over and chaired with distinction for many years. Moss said he had once actually raised his voice to Staggers in a Commerce Committee meeting, something he almost never did in committee, or with his staff. The issue was tire safety. Moss wanted labels on tires showing the manufacturer, so people would know who to complain to. On that day, 20 years later, Moss looked out his window at some yellow flowers and smiled. "Harley was a wonderful guy," he said, "he just didnít like controversy. Sometimes you just have to embrace controversy. You have to take on a fight."
But, while he had his run-ins with economic interests and some members of Congress, Moss was invariably considerate and supportive with his staff. We revered him. We learned that he was taking us down some important roads and that he would always be there with us. At the end of a long day of interviewing, I asked Jean whether she ever advised him on strategy in his many battles with powerful interests. "No," she said. "He did not need any advice. He would come home at night and I would tell him what the average folks back in Sacramento would probably say about the issue. That was all. I told him about the average folks."
Moss told me his papers were all at the California State University library. I would find everything there. As usual, he had anticipated what I would need to do the job. So, I just said good-bye. There wasnít anything else that needed to be said.
Michael R. Lemov was chief counsel to John Mossís subcommittees on Commerce and Finance and Oversight and Investigations of the House Commerce Committee from 1970 to 1978.