Pennsylvania’s Earmarks King

Dapper Dan Was A Force of Nature

Posted April 12, 2010 at 4:48pm

As lawmakers contemplate putting the kibosh on Congressional earmarks, a new book about former Congressman and notorious pork-barreler Dan Flood (D-Pa.) represents a welcome escape for those who yearn for a time when channeling federal funds into one’s district was a point of pride among Members.

The book, “Dapper Dan Flood: The Controversial Life of a Congressional Power Broker,” is a study of a man who employed persuasion, manipulation, arm-twisting and grandiloquent oratory to achieve a broad swath of policy goals — and most importantly, federal funding for his district.

Over the course of his tenure in Congress (spanning, roughly, 1945-1980), which culminated in his resignation over charges of bribery, Flood played an important role in U.S. policy toward Russia during the Cold War and the implementation of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. However, the mustachioed Flood will probably be best remembered for almost single-handedly transforming a declining anthracite coal industry in his home district of Luzerne County into a more prosperous service economy.

Few are more qualified to author such a book than William C. Kashatus, who worked as an intern in Flood’s House office many years ago and later learned to balance the admiration that he developed for the man with the necessary detachment that a historian must cultivate to critically examine his subject. Kashatus’ work is the product of more than 30 interviews with Flood’s colleagues and family members as well as thousands of documents, including declassified FBI case files from its investigation of Flood on bribery and corruption charges.

Flood was one of the most enthusiastic — and adept — pork-barrelers of his time. As he grew more powerful, Flood leveraged his position as a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee to secure hundreds of millions of dollars for projects to benefit his constituents.

Today his efforts would certainly be condemned by the same critics who admonished the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) for his unabashed pork-barreling ways, but the economic benefits that the residents of Luzerne County experienced as a result of Flood’s efforts on their behalf are undeniable.

As a first-term Congressman, Flood ingratiated himself with one of the most powerful Speakers in the history of the House of Representatives: Sam Rayburn (D-Texas). Observers credit Flood’s flamboyant appearance and “fierce individualism” for gaining Rayburn’s admiration; his attire typically consisted of a white Edwardian suit, black shirt and white tie, and Flood kept his carefully groomed handlebar mustache waxed to points.

His loquaciousness while the House was in session also earned him plaudits among his colleagues, many of whom found Flood’s formal training as an actor in Broadway shows in New York City to be a formidable weapon in floor debates.

As a result of his demeanor and appearance, Flood managed to secure an appointment to the Appropriations Committee — virtually unheard of for a freshman Representative. He wasted little time, securing funding for a $2.65 million, 457-bed Veterans Affairs hospital during his first stint as a Congressman. He didn’t stop there, either; with Flood’s help, the federal government began to subsidize coal production in Luzerne County and went on to build a new airport and spend millions on other public works projects there.

One important distinction to make, though, is that unlike some pork-barrelers who request earmarks in exchange for political favors, the measures Flood sponsored were designed to bolster Luzerne County’s long-term economic footing.

Aside from his reputation as a consummate pork-barreler, what makes Flood’s story especially endearing is the fact that he was also well-known as one of the most responsive and caring Members to ever grace the House. Flood worked from dawn till dusk, met with any and all of his constituents, and he and his wife, Catherine, become proud members of the Tuesday-to-Thursday club, which comprised East Coast Representatives who arrived in Washington on Tuesday and left for their home districts after the last vote on Thursday.

One June 23, 1972, he even bypassed federal protocol by fast-tracking relief supplies and National Guard troops to his home district on hearing news of a devastating flood that had left hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians homeless.

“Stand by! This is going to be one flood against another!” he famously declared.

As partisan rancor continues to permeate the Capitol, it’s worth remembering politicians like Flood, who populated Capitol Hill at a time when it was a much more congenial place than it is today. “Representatives enjoyed a spirit of bipartisan camaraderie and did their jobs with little public attention,” Kashatus writes.

Washington is a town notorious for its short memory, but in times like these, it’s worth hearkening back to a simpler era when in relative obscurity lawmakers could — for better or worse — divert money for a new veterans hospital in their district or labor to preserve dying industries that their constituents depended on.

But while Flood arguably represented the face of a more innocent era of Congressional earmarks, his exit from office also exemplified how politically volatile they can be. Despite being re-elected by a landslide amid federal charges of conspiracy and bribery for accepting kickbacks from contractors looking for federal funding, defending himself against the allegations ultimately proved too draining both financially and physically for Flood to continue serving in Congress.

He tendered his resignation on the House floor on Jan. 31, 1980, and pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate federal election law a month later. He died in 1994.

“Although Congress normally recognizes a veteran member’s career with a plethora of celebratory speeches, there were none for Flood,” Kashatus writes, which is sad for a man who meant so much to his constituents and, for a time, to Congress itself.