Phillip Burton: The Father of Modern California…and Congress

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For the best understanding of California’s current political environment, one should not look at the men California has produced for the presidency, for the politics of California match neither those of Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan. Despite the claims of liberals and conservatives alike, Richard Nixon was not in actuality a liberal, a subject I covered at length in a previous post. Ronald Reagan of course is a no go, for this state today will not elect him in the event he came back to life or anyone else of his ideological viewpoint today. California’s making into a liberal state was the long-term product of the efforts of a man who has been dead for 35 years…Phillip Burton (1926-1983).

Phillip Burton, a lawyer by profession, first held major political office upon his election to the California State Assembly in 1956, representing San Francisco. In 1964, he was elected to Congress and stood out as a staunch liberal. He was an early critic of the Vietnam War, voting against appropriating funds as early as 1965, one of only three members of the House to do so. Burton was both extremely liberal and a ruthless political genius. By the early 1970s he had become one of the most powerful members of his party by allying with Ohio’s Wayne Hays, the mean-spirited head of the House Administration Committee who wielded power partly through his control of the air conditioning of House office buildings. It was a suitable fit, as Burton himself was an abrasive and tyrannical figure who was second to none in how hard he worked his staff. In less than ten years in the House, Burton had become the most powerful ultra-leftist to hold legislative power, easily being the third most powerful member of the chamber. He was also able to court numerous conservative representatives from the South through his support of continuing agricultural subsidies, which were coming under increasing attack from otherwise liberal Democrats in the North. He had a number of legislative accomplishments in office as well, including playing a major role in passage of legislation establishing the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, mine safety regulations, and the expansion of national parks.

In 1973, Burton forever changed Congress when he pushed Ways and Means Committee chair Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.) to let a bill to go to the floor without a “closed rule” for the first time since the 1920s “as an experiment”, which resulted in a flood of lobbyists descending upon Washington to add projects into bills (Frum, 278-279). The influence of lobbyists on the legislative process has increased substantially since. The following year he managed to abolish the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a committee he had always opposed, through parliamentary maneuvering that transferred the committee to be under the jurisdiction of his ally, Don Edwards (D-Calif.), who proceeded to abolish the committee (Jacobs). Save for the chairman, all members of the committee were convinced to leave in favor of seats on better committees. Burton also played a significant role in the ousting of Southern Democratic chairmen, which I covered in a previous post. In 1976, Burton ran for Majority Leader, a post he lost by one vote to Texas’s Jim Wright, who had been in office nine years longer and was more moderate.

In 1980, Burton masterminded a redistricting plan to keep Democratic seats safe with certain districts so outrageously gerrymandered to the extent that he called it “my contribution to modern art” (Devoe). The redistricting proved effective: despite earning only 49% of the vote in the 1982 House election, Democrats won 60% of California’s seats. There was also a personal element in this redistricting plan: he wanted to boot ultra-conservative Rep. John Rousselot (R-Calif.) out of office for recruiting a candidate who came close to defeating his brother, John Burton, in the 1980 election. Rousselot was shifted into a Latino district, the Democratic lean of which he couldn’t overcome in the 1982 midterms. Previously California’s delegation had been evenly balanced, with 22 Democrats and 21 Republicans.  The Democrats held 28 seats, while Republicans held 17. This favorable redistricting helped shift the political power of the state to the Democrats, and Republicans have never been able to secure enough power to pay Burton’s ghost back for the 1980 redistricting. Given San Francisco’s sizeable gay community, Burton was an early advocate of federal programs to address the spread of AIDS. His career and life were suddenly cut short by an aneurysm in 1983, but his influence lives on. Indeed, he must be smiling from the great beyond at the results of the 2018 election in California.


A Not So Simple Game. (1991, January 13). Time Magazine.

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Devoe, P.H. (2017, October 7). Gerrymandering Isn’t a Republican Problem. National Review.

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Frum, D. (2000).  How we got here: The 70’s: The decade that brought you modern life – for better or worse.  New York, NY: Basic Books.

Jacobs, J. (1995). A rage for justice: The passion and politics of Phillip Burton.

Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Quinn, T. (2004, October 31). Crazy-Quilt Districts Make Your Vote Pointless. Los Angeles Times.

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