In Remembrance

Home Up Freedom Award Sacramento Bee Obit In Remembrance Washington Post Obit White House Biography John Moss and Gore Moss Foundation

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 the proposal.

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, he argued.

It was not the first time Moss went against the grain in a 26-year congressional career.

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 secrets.

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 House.

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 electric system.

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 maneuvers.

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 his committee.

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 Internet.

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 wilderness.

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.

He leaves a legislative legacy that few since have matched.

Top of page

Revised: 10 Feb 2008 20:47:21 -0800.