Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career: Political Achievements

BOND: Let's come back to your own service in the Congress. You also get on the Budget committee, which is unusual for a freshman, but later resign and go to the Appropriations committee. And you play an active role in the leadership of the black caucus, and opposing – it's Ronald Reagan as President now – and opposing his budget cutbacks. Now talk about that for a minute.

GRAY: Well, once I got on the Steering and Policy committee, that was the doorway. I mean, here I was sitting with the chairs, the chiefs, the big leaders of the Democratic Party, here was this little kid, preacher from North Philadelphia. They were even surprised. In fact, Tip O'Neill said to me, "How did you get elected to this?" Because he knew the people I ran against. All of them had prior political experience. And he said, "You know, I've got to watch this guy – " He even now said, "Watch this guy. He beat out all these experienced political pros to get this seat. We better watch him." And my job was to become an advocate for the freshmen in their class assignments. And I had promised in my campaign that I would always put their interests ahead of mine. And essentially, I was very successful. That year, we got three freshmen on the Ways and Means committee. That was the first time in the history of the Democratic caucus that any freshman got on Ways and Means. We got three on Appropriations. We got two on Interstate Commerce. I was cleaning up, you know, cutting deals left and right, until finally one New York congressman the next day said, "Hold it a minute. These freshmen are getting too much. What about these guys who've served here?" And the tide turned on me.

I had made that promise, and the committee assignment that I wanted, which was Banking and Urban Affairs, because I was from the District, and Pat Harris was then Secretary of HUD, and it was the last year of the Carter administration. I wanted that, but a guy named Mike Lowry, who had been a big supporter of mine for Steering and Policy, he lost his first choice, his second choice, and his third choice was that. And so basically, everybody in the room knew that that's what I wanted. So when it came around to nominating freshmen, I didn't nominate myself. And Tip O'Neill said, "Wait a minute, Bill. You said that you wanted that seat. You told me that you wanted that seat." And I said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Speaker, I can't nominate myself because I made a promise." And so I gave it up. And everybody went, "Huh?" And I didn't realize it at the time, but later I was told that sold the leadership on Bill Gray forever, that I would be willing to keep my word, even if it meant giving up what I wanted the most. Mike Lowry got the seat. I then was searching around for what was now going to be Bill Gray's first choice. That was my first choice. And so, Parren Mitchell, Lou Stokes, came to me and said "Bill, Parren is going off of Budget to take Small Business. We need somebody who can get on that committee, because it's a leadership committee. You get selected. And you're the only guy that we think can be elected to that seat. Would you take it?" So I took it. And so I went on Budget, and I went on Foreign Affairs, because at that point the black caucus leadership came to me and said that Mr. [Charles] Diggs was in some trouble, and that there would be no black member on Foreign Affairs. So that's how I got on Budget, that's how I got on Foreign Affairs.

BOND: But then later you resigned from Budget, and you to go Appropriations. How'd that happen?

GRAY: Because I found out that the two most powerful, three most powerful committees in the United States House of Representatives are Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Rules. And everything that I wanted to do, in terms of any issue, I could do from Appropriations. So I had to give up Budget and go to Appropriations, and I knew that I could go back to Budget. And so essentially, I served some time on the Budget committee, and then I went back to the Budget committee as a member of the Appropriation committee, because there were seats reserved for Budget, from Appropriations.

BOND: And in '85 you get to be chair of the Budget committee. I mean, that's a breakthrough that never happened before.

GRAY: Never happened before, and has not happened to this day, that a congressman who has only been there six years, gets elected chairman of the Budget committee. I mean, again, you know, I didn't know any better. I didn't know the political process. I hadn't been to the statehouse. I hadn't been to the city council house, and I didn't know you were supposed to sit around and wait. And so, I just took the position – "I want to do that, I think I can do that" – so I'm going to run for Budget committee chairman. And you know, people laughed. I remember on national television, when someone asked me "What [are you] going to do next?" And I said, "I'm going to run for Budget committee chairman," as if I said I was going to Disneyland. They laughed. The two reporters actually laughed. And they said, "Excuse us." And I ran and I won. And I became chairman of the Budget committee, right in the middle of the 1980s, as we were dealing with the budget priorities of Ronald Reagan.

BOND: And that had to be a fight. I mean, he's a popular President, people loved him. It had to be hard to fight against him.

GRAY: Yes.

BOND: He wanted to cut.

GRAY: Well, basically, he wanted to cut spending, but what people were not paying attention to – he wanted to cut domestic social spending. He was not cutting spending overall. He was increasing spending. He was increasing it in areas that he wanted to – defense, foreign affairs, agriculture, and some other areas. But he was cutting things like education. He wanted to eliminate Pell grants. He wanted to eliminate mostly the social payment side of the federal ledger. But he was increasing the other side. That's why we got the deficits. That's why the deficits grew in the first four years of Ronald Reagan's presidency to more than we'd ever had before in history, because he hadn't reduced spending. So I came as Budget committee chairman, and Tip O'Neill said, "Okay, Bill Gray, what's going to be our policy?" Because at that point, I was the spokesperson for the Democratic Party on macro-economic policy and on fiscal policy. I'm the spokesperson. Why? Because the Senate was controlled by the Republicans. Pete Domenici was chair of the Budget committee.

I told him, meaning Tip O'Neill, that I thought that we needed to change directions as a party. I said, "Obviously, people want to reduce spending. But," I said, "we need to change the debate, [it's] not about reducing spending or not to reduce spending, but what are the priorities? What's important to the country?" And essentially Tip O'Neill said, "Let's do that," and I changed it by getting up and saying, "He wants a $50 billion cut in spending, I'm going to get him a $50 billion cut in spending. I'll cut $50, if the Republicans cut $50, I'll cut $50. What I did was I cut something that he did not want cut. I cut defense. I cut foreign aid. I cut agriculture. And basically I started a policy, which I think is followed today bipartisanly, that the low-income means tested programs all receive at least inflation. And once that's done, everything else is subject to scrutiny and reduction.

And of course, most people don't realize that most of the payments in the federal government don't go to poor people – go to middle-class, upper middle-class people. So we basically argued a different set of cuts. So when the debate was enjoined in the spring of 1985, it wasn't about "the Democrats don't want to cut spending." It was about what you're cutting. And by that time, the American people said, "$600 coffee pots? Wait a minute, for the military? That's a little expensive." And we were saying, "You know, security, defense is important, but we don't need this kind of growth. This is more reasonable growth that will give the military what it needs. And by the way, over here in the domestic area, let's cut back on the funding of some of these roads that we pay for in the logging area, so that private corporations can drive their trucks and cut down the timber. Why are we paying for those roads? Why don't they pay for the roads, and not out of the taxpayer." We started raising questions like that, and once you begin that debate, suddenly you can see savings through reductions in spending, but they're much more reasonable. And they're supportable by the American people.

BOND: Thinking back over your life, which is far from over, and mentioning that accomplishment that was told you at the graduation ceremony, what do you think is your greatest accomplishment and your greatest contribution, to date, as an African American leader?

GRAY: Being minister of the Bright Hope Baptist Church and minister of the Union Baptist Church are still my greatest accomplishments.

BOND: And what have you not done, that you would like to do?

GRAY: I always had in mind that I wanted to be a commercial airline pilot, but I got these glasses when I was in the seventh grade, and back in those days, if you didn't have 20/20, you couldn't fly. So if there's one thing that I've always wanted to do – and my wife says, "Why don't you still go do it?" – is learn how to fly.

BOND: You should do it. I've done it.

GRAY: I may – that may be the next challenge, is go out and take lessons and learn how to fly.