Too Dumb to Meter, Part 3

As the book title Too Dumb to Meter: Follies, Fiascoes, Dead Ends, and Duds on the U.S. Road to Atomic Energy implies, nuclear power has traveled a rough road. In this POWER exclusive, we present the third chapter, “Micro-Mismanagement by Committee.” During the frenzy to manage atomic power after World War II, Congress created an executive branch agency that threatened to be too independent, too powerful, and too isolated from the rest of government. Compounding their errors, perhaps in recognition of what they had created, the solons also developed a way to insert their own power into the action. This proved to be a major mistake—blurring the lines between executive and legislative authority—causing no end of problems for the nation’s nascent atomic energy venture.

To protect its interests in the postwar jockeying over atomic energy, Congress in the 1946 law established the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE), made up of eighteen members, nine from the Senate and nine from the House. Its mission, as stated in the law, was to “make continuing studies of the activities of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and of problems relating to the development, use, and control of atomic energy.” The move to erect a special committee to keep Congress involved in atomic energy reflected, in part, ambiguity about the powers that had been given to the AEC. During the debate over the legislation, Rep. Clare Booth Luce, a Connecticut Republican, commented that the representatives were “torn between a distaste for the vast dictatorial domestic powers [the legislation] confers on the five-man commission, and our fears that without it we shall endanger our national security in a troubled world.” The legislation gave the joint committee—the only congressional committee established by law, not by the internal rules of the House and Senate—“exclusive jurisdiction” over atomic power. One analysis concluded, “While the JCAE was certainly a committee of Congress, in many ways it did not resemble a congressional committee, or at least few other congressional committees before or since, serving as almost a unicameral legislature within the bicameral Congress.”

In the normal order in Congress, various committees generally compete with each other, bringing greater debate and diversity of views and interests to consideration of legislative issues. In today’s House, for example, while the Ways and Means Committee has jurisdiction over taxes, other committees also have concurrent authority over aspects of tax policy, tempering the power of the tax panel. It’s messy, but it usually works. Congress, with the Atomic Energy Act, made an end-run around traditional structures and power thereby empowering an atomic autocracy.

The 1946 law also set up a political fight between the conventional appropriations committees, which had evolved into major power centers in Congress, and the new group on the block, the JCAE. In 1951, the Senate essentially ceded the power of the purse to the joint committee, providing that three members of the joint committee would be ex officio members of the appropriations committee for all matters atomic. That didn’t happen in the House, where a stormy relationship between the nuclear power barons and the legacy powers of the appropriators prevailed.

Because Congress—which controlled the federal government’s purse—gave the joint committee extraordinary authority over the AEC, the committee quickly became the political sun around which the other atomic institutions revolved. The JCAE was, in its time, the most powerful committee in Congress—arguably the most powerful in congressional history. It was also one of the most powerful institutions of government in Washington, often eclipsing the executive branch. These (mostly) guys had radioactive muscles, and they flexed them often—and often on behalf of half-baked, irrational nuclear schemes.

Examining the unique powers of the committee, one of the histories of the AEC notes, “Moreover, it was the only joint committee of Congress authorized to receive proposed legislation and recommend it to the Congress.” In the wacky world of Washington, that’s a powerful proposition: a joint committee can write bills that largely trump the work of the other substantive committees in the House and Senate.

What’s more, the JCAE developed such expertise, and based its decisions on secret testimony, which it could reveal and conceal at will, that it was able to dictate national policy to Congress and the executive branch. Also, when it was adding to the powers of the committee in 1951, Congress gave it the authority to wield a legislative veto. The committee could review proposed actions of the AEC, the White House, or other executive branch agencies, including the military, and nullify them. This set up monumental battles between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, most often won by the joint committee.

The AEC quickly realized where the real power on atomic policy in the United States could be found, and used the joint committee to protect the agency against moves by the White House to implement administration policy that the AEC found threatening, particularly on budget matters. A symbiotic and sycophantic relationship soon developed between the AEC and the joint committee.

The intimate relationship between the congressional overseers and the agency it oversaw caused some heartburn, even on the committee. California Republican Craig Hosmer, who served on the joint committee, and who had been a young AEC lawyer earlier in his professional life, was troubled by the close relationship. In a 1960 speech on the House floor, he said: “I sometimes feel that as between members of the Joint Committee and members of the Atomic Energy Commission, there exists only a shadowy and blurred understanding of which policy matters are to be decided by the committee and which by the commission, even sometimes as to what are matters of policy and what are matters of administration. This needs clarification by force of law rather than force of personalities and customs.” Also, committee staff—who wielded extraordinary power—often moved over to the AEC, where they again exercised exceptional power due to their back channel relations with the JCAE. There was similar movement in the other direction, from the commission to the committee. James Ramey’s career exemplified this revolving atomic door. In 1946, Lilienthal brought Ramey—at the time, a young lawyer on the staff of the Tennessee Valley Authority—with him to Washington as an assistant general counsel. Ramey then transferred to the AEC’s Chicago office, where he worked with Adm. Rickover on the contract with Westinghouse Electric Corp. for the first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus.

In 1956, Ramey moved to the joint committee, where he was executive director, the most important staff job on the committee. It was a plum job in many ways, including pay. The joint committee was not bound by staff pay directives for other congressional committees, or by the special pay schedule that applied to the AEC (which was already higher than that of the rest of the civil service). Ramey became a powerful and influential presence, particularly on matters related to the AEC’s military programs and its dealings with the Pentagon. He helped develop the information on the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba that led to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

In 1962, President Kennedy nominated Ramey as an AEC commissioner, where he served from September 1963 to July 1973. During that period, most of it served under AEC chairman Glenn Seaborg, Ramey emerged as a major power at the AEC. Seaborg, a Nobel Prize–winning nuclear chemist, was largely a hands-off administrator during his ten years as chairman, preferring to make speeches and presentations on the wonders of the atom. Ramey stepped into that vacuum. His 2010 obituary in the Washington Post said, “He was described in a 1974 New York Times article as the ‘single most influential member of the commission in the past decade,’ who for many years was the ‘power behind the throne’ of the AEC’s chairmen.”

On the JCAE, no more than five of the nine members from each house could be from the same party; the leadership rotated by chamber and party control of Congress. Members of the committee tended to have safe electoral seats, so they spent years and decades on the committee. The membership of the JCAE was remarkably stable. Over the years, the same names dominated the committee. From the Senate: Democrats Richard Russell of Georgia; Clinton Anderson of New Mexico; John Pastore of Rhode Island; and Republican Bourke Hickenlooper of Iowa regularly served on the committee. During the first eight years of the committee’s life, control of Congress shifted back-and-forth between the two parties, and Hickenlooper moved repeatedly from ranking minority to lead Republican. He served as chairman of the committee in the Eightieth Congress (1947–1948) and the Eighty-third Congress (1953–1954). Pastore was a three-time chairman (1962–1964, 1967–1968, and 1970–1972).

On the House side, two men dominated the joint committee: Democrats Chet Holifield of California and Mel Price of Illinois. Holifield served in the House from 1943 through 1974, becoming a nuclear lobbyist for General Electric after his congressional service. Under an informal agreement that alternated the chairmanship of the joint committee between the House and Senate, Holifield chaired the committee three times (1960–1961, 1965–1977, 1969–1970). A friendly and garrulous cigar-chomping former sports writer from East St. Louis, Price chaired the joint committee only once, serving from 1973 through 1974. First elected to Congress in 1944 after Army service, Price was also a long-serving member of the House Armed Services Committee and combined his interest in atomic energy with his position on military affairs. Price became armed forces chairman in 1975, following his service on the joint committee. House Democrats purged him from the armed services committee in 1985, believing his age and his unwavering support for all things military rendered him no longer fit to lead the committee.

While often critical of the AEC and its programs, all of the members of the JCAE were enthusiastic about the big prospects for nuclear energy. A Congressional Research Service analysis of the joint committee written in 2004 described the committee’s “unswerving dedication to the development of nuclear power.” The piece goes on to note: “The members of the JCAE had a pro-nuclear power philosophy; definite objectives which they believed should be achieved; and specific policies which they worked to have implemented.” When the members of the joint committee were angry with the AEC, it generally meant they didn’t believe the agency was moving fast enough. Partisanship was not a major factor in the JCAE’s legislative life—pork was. The committee took great care to assure that spending on AEC programs put money into their states and congressional districts.

Industry lobbied the joint committee when it thought the AEC wasn’t serving their needs or when it wanted to mold AEC policies. If an administration (of either party) wanted to redirect or shut down a failing AEC program, the commission invariably enlisted the JCAE on its side, along with industry. The joint committee represented the strongest arm of an iron triangle of interests that included the AEC, industry, and Congress. The administration, decidedly not part of that arrangement, was often its enemy and occasionally its foil.

The concept of the joint committee and its unprecedented powers has prompted some admiration over the years and recommendations that it be duplicated for other matters of national priority. Most recently, the national Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (the so-called 9/11 Commission) looked fondly on the JCAE and its approach to governance. The 9/11 Commission’s July 2004 final report called for “centralizing and strengthening congressional oversight of intelligence and homeland security issues,” with the joint committee as a model. The report said, “Either Congress should create a joint committee for intelligence, using the Joint Atomic Energy Committee as its model, or it should create House and Senate committees with combined authorizing and appropriations powers.” Fortunately for the cause of limited government and diversity of policy views in the process of running a government, Congress ignored the 9/11 Committee on this recommendation (and most others, as well).

As the nation’s views of nuclear power soured in the mid-1970s, mostly as a result of under-delivery on the promises made in the preceding decades, Congress completely restructured the government’s atomic enterprise. In October 1974, President Gerald Ford signed the Energy Reorganization Act. The Atomic Energy Commission was split asunder like a fissioning uranium atom: The production and energy research and development aspects became the province of a place-holder agency called the Energy Research and Development Administration, later transmogrifying into the U.S. Department of Energy. The puny and often conflicted regulatory function of the AEC, which licensed new power reactors, became the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy died a lingering death alongside the AEC. Shortly after Ford signed the reorganization law, the House adopted a proposal from Richard Bolling of Missouri, a senior Democrat on the House Rules Committee, which began chipping away at the joint committee’s expansive jurisdiction. The Bolling Amendment gave authority for non-military aspects of nuclear power to the House Interior Committee. In August 1977, both the House and the Senate formally abolished the joint committee, following a scathing report the year before by the reformist group Common Cause, titled “Stacking the Deck,” and outlining how the committee had become a “huckster for the nuclear power industry.”

Kennedy Maize is a POWER contributing editor and executive editor of MANAGING POWER. Too Dumb to Meter is available on and is serialized by permission.