John Moss: He pursued lonely
causes with a fierce tenacity
By Leo Rennert
Bee Washington Bureau Chief
(Published Dec. 6, 1997)
WASHINGTON -- The date was May 1, 1973 -- one day after President Nixon opened an
ominous chapter in the Watergate cover-up by jettisoning his top aides and
co-conspirators, H.R. Haldeman and John Erhlichman.
On Capitol Hill, there were immediate calls for a beefed-up congressional investigation
and appointment of an independent prosecutor.
Amid all the din, Rep. John Moss, D-Sacramento, who died early Friday at age 82, surged
ahead of the pack, startling members on both sides of the aisle with an urgent proposal to
set up an impeachment committee.
It would take more than a year before more damning disclosures and a belated but
politically acceptable impeachment drive finally forced Nixon to leave office.
When Moss unloaded his bombshell, he encountered only howls of derision. Most
Republicans still were loyal defenders of Nixon. Most Democrats preferred a more gradual
strategy to weaken the president without seeming to stage a frontal assault. They thought
impeachment politically unwise and too wrenching an experience for the country.
"Talk about impeachment is nonsense," said Sen. Alan Cranston,
D-Calif. Added Democrat John Tunney, California's junior senator: "We should not
be talking about impeachment." House Speaker Carl Albert curtly brushed aside
But Moss was not interested in political calculations. For him, it was a constitutional
issue. The House had the responsibility of initiating impeachment proceedings under the
Constitution and thus needed to set in motion appropriate machinery to gather the facts,
It was not the first time Moss went against the grain in a 26-year congressional
As a tireless investigator of governmental abuses and misdeeds, Moss incurred the wrath
of both Democratic and Republican administrations. He tangled with the White House and the
federal courts over Congress' right to gain access to the nation's most sensitive Cold War
He upset business interests and regulatory commissions with wide-ranging probes of cozy
conflicts of interests at the expense of vulnerable consumers.
When most lawmakers still gave unqualified support to the Vietnam War, Moss drove
Lyndon Johnson up the wall by traveling to Southeast Asia and meticulously exposing the
corruption and futility of U.S. nation-building assistance for a Saigon regime that would
never meet democratic standards.
Upon his return from one of those trips, Johnson sent a car to pick up Moss at the
airport and bring him directly to the White House, where the president was conferring with
Cabinet members about plans to expand the range of U.S. bombing missions.
Johnson asked Moss what he thought about the idea. "Mr. President, the
Vietnamese people are not behind us," Moss replied. "Expanding the war
would be a mistake." Johnson turned his back on Moss and ignored him for the
rest of the meeting. From that day on, the Mosses never again were invited to the White
Moss became a giant in the California congressional delegation, serving as its chairman
and working in bipartisan fashion to protect the interests of the state and particularly
the Central Valley.
With three other veteran Valley lawmakers -- Democrats B.F. Sisk, John McFall and
Harold T. "Bizz" Johnson -- he promoted water development projects and sided
with consumer-owned electric utilities against the economic and political clout of big
investor-owned systems like Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
In the mid-1960s, Moss waged a furious fight against a Democratic-controlled Interior
Department that tilted toward utility giants in the creation of a Northwest-Southwest
But he made his biggest mark by transcending local and regional concerns with an
ambitious national agenda.
Seeking to make government more accountable, he became the author of the Freedom of
Information Act, leaving a lasting legacy for generations of muckrakers and investigative
journalists who have been able to get into dark corners that bureaucrats and
office-holders would rather keep off limits.
Moss demonstrated his legislative adeptness in guiding the measure to final enactment
by insisting that it include judicial review in instances where agencies balked at
information requests. He even waited a full congressional session just to get that
provision. Without it, he feared the act too easily could be circumvented.
In 1972, he won approval of legislation creating the Consumer Product Safety
Commission, empowered to set safety standards for tens of thousands of household products,
toys and recreation equipment.
The legislation proved so popular that Nixon was forced to sign it. Ten days before he
won re-election, Nixon praised it as "the most significant consumer-protection
legislation passed by the 92nd Congress."
But a few months later, Nixon tried to gut it by appointing pro-industry commissioners.
Predictably, Moss went on the attack, denouncing Nixon for leaving consumers defenseless
in buying flammable nightwear or power tools subject to potentially lethal shock hazards.
The commission is still at work today.
As he rose in seniority, Moss used a Government Operations subcommittee chairmanship to
expose mismanaged foreign aid programs. When he went to Saigon, he brought along Rep.
Jeffrey Cohelan, D-Berkeley, a member of the Appropriations Committee, to show him how
millions of taxpayer dollars were sinking down rat holes.
"For several days, without interruption, we had official stenographers taking
down testimony from witnesses from early in the morning to late in the evening,"
Cohelan recalled upon his return. "Moss was just relentless. I had to take a few
days off just to recover from the pace he set."
In the 1970s, when winds of change began to swirl on Capitol Hill, Moss -- with help
from young reformers -- staged an insurrection in the House Commerce Committee, wresting
by a single vote the chairmanship of its powerful investigations subcommittee from Rep.
Harley Staggers, D-W.Va.
Overnight, a dormant panel turned into a full-speed-ahead vehicle for Moss-led
investigations that exposed an international uranium cartel, which saddled U.S. consumers
with hundreds of millions of dollars in overcharges, plants, and financial conflicts of
interest among scores of Commerce Department officials.
Probes of irregularities on Wall Street prompted legislation that gave more regulatory
muscle to the Securities and Exchange Commission, protecting investors against shady
Moss's investigations spawned an entire generation of consumer activists, who began
their careers on his personal or committee staffs.
To defend congressional prerogatives, Moss took President Ford to court when the White
House invoked executive privilege to deny sensitive documents on government wiretaps to
He saw Congress' role as the great defender of personal liberties against executive
branch encroachment, launching a flurry of assaults on government plans to create
super-snoop "Big Brother" computer networks long before the age of the
Moss arrived in Washington when the legendary Sam Rayburn was speaker and advised
freshmen that "to get along, you have to go along." It was a lesson
Moss passionately rejected. He didn't suffer fools gladly and he was not reluctant to
cross his own party's leadership.
Transitory public sentiment or polls mattered little. His was often a voice in the
At the end of the Vietnam War, there was a stampede to enact the War Powers Act,
described by its sponsors as a warranty against unilateral presidential attempts to commit
U.S. troops to combat without congressional approval.
Moss cast one of the few votes against it. The act was unnecessary because the
Constitution already gave Congress the power to declare war and the power of the purse to
fund -- or defund -- military operations, he argued.
Moss saw the act as delegating new war-making powers to the president -- the very
opposite of its sponsors' claims -- because it allowed him to conduct military campaigns
for a few months before he had to submit his decision for congressional review. At that
point, Moss predicted, the fat would be in the fire and Congress would have little option
but to go along.
Moss followed a similarly iconoclastic path on the political stage. In 1976, as
chairman of California's Democratic House delegation, he endorsed Gov. Jerry Brown's late
bid for the party's presidential nomination against Jimmy Carter. But Moss quickly became
disenchanted with Brown's mercurial ways, his anti-government rhetoric and his alliance
with Democratic machine bosses in Maryland. Calling Brown "flip" and
"superficial," Moss switched his endorsement to Carter.
Often quixotic, always stubborn, Moss was not exactly "one of the guys"
in the eyes of his fellow lawmakers. But he won respect and even grudging admiration from
many opponents for his fierce pursuit of sometimes lonely causes.