In 1952, Congressman Jesse Combs decided to retire. He had run for office initially in 1944 in the name of challenging Martin Dies Jr., the chair of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, but Dies had a health scare and opted to retire. Combs’s progressive reputation would largely continue in his successor, Jack Bascom Brooks (1922-2012). Brooks quickly followed the leadership of Speaker Sam Rayburn and regarded himself as like him politically, “I’m just like old man Rayburn. Just a Democrat, no prefix or suffix” (Politico). Although not as liberal as many of his Northern colleagues, Brooks could prove highly partisan, and this was evidenced in some of his actions and behaviors. He gained a reputation for being tough and mean, chomping his cigar and interrogating bureaucrats for wasting taxpayer money. Brooks’ efforts saved taxpayers a lot of money; former Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe stated, “He literally has saved American taxpayers billions of dollars through his actions in improving government efficiency and eliminating waste” (Politico). Indeed, such measures he sponsored to this effect were the Brooks Act of 1972 and as chairman of the Government Operations Committee from 1975 to 1989, multiple laws including the Paper Reduction Act of 1980. He was also staunchly pro-organized labor unlike many Texas Democrats, and in 1959 he was one of four Texas Democrats to vote against the Eisenhower-backed Landrum-Griffin Act, tightening restrictions on secondary boycotts and picketing (Robertson, 15).
Brooks and Civil Rights
Jack Brooks’ record on civil rights was more forward-thinking than for many Texas politicians. He didn’t sign the Southern Manifesto, although neither did most Texas legislators, and although he voted against the House version of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 as did all other Texas legislators, he voted for the final Senate product and voted for funding the Civil Rights Commission in 1958 and 1959. However, Brooks also voted against Powell Amendments (as did other Texans) and he voted against both the House and final version of the Civil Rights Act of 1960. His greater antagonism on the subject than in the future under Democratic presidents perhaps served as a reflection of his partisanship.
During the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, Brooks was an enthusiastic backer of civil rights measures, voting for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Brooks, however, wasn’t 100% on board with liberal positions on civil rights. In the 1970s supported measures curbing the practice of busing and opposed affirmative action and racial quotas. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee from 1989 to 1995, Brooks would sponsor the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
Support of LBJ
As a Texas Democrat, Brooks was one of the strongest supporters of President Lyndon B. Johnson, backing almost the entirety of the Great Society, including the unsuccessful effort to roll back the “right to work” section of the Taft-Hartley Act, one of only four Texas representatives to do so. Indeed, the 1960s was Brooks’ most liberal decade. He also backed the Johnson Administration on the Vietnam War, which he extended to support for Nixon’s war policies. Brooks even went as far as to back fair housing legislation and was one of only two Texas Democrats to vote against Rep. Arch Moore’s (R-W.V.) motion to delete the fair housing section of the 1966 civil rights bill.
Opposition to Nixon and Reagan
Jack Brooks despised President Richard Nixon and did not hide this when he exposed through an investigation that he had used taxpayer funds to improve on his San Clemente mansion, and his opposition to revenue sharing was suspected of being motivated by an animus to the Republicans, who had developed the idea (Burka & Smith). He also played a prominent role in pursuing impeachment charges against Nixon over Watergate. Brooks drafted the impeachment articles against President Nixon, stating when asked about the theme of the second article on the misuse of government agencies, “The theme of this article is that we’re gonna get that son of a bitch out of there!” (McNulty & McNulty) Nixon would later call him his “executioner”.
In 1976, Brooks was described in Texas Monthly as a liberal Democrat and that his reputation was polarizing as he was often caustic in his rhetoric, “People either love Jack Brooks or they hate him. No one is neutral. There is little dispute about him politically – he is a fervent Democratic Party loyalist, dependably pro-labor, and a master at dipping into the pork barrel – but virtually no agreement about him personally” (Burka & Smith). His lifetime MC-Index score is a 21%, being on the cusp of solidly liberal, with his most conservative decade being the 1970s.
During the Reagan years, Brooks led the House investigation into the Iran-Contra Affair and opposed Reagan’s economic policies, including income tax reduction and cutting social services. He also opposed Reagan’s ramping up of defense expenditures, particularly the Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed by its critics as the “Star Wars program”. One position, however, he continually stood for was opposition to gun control. He was a member of the NRA and knew his Beaumont-based district well.
Gun Control Push From Democrats and Fall
The enthusiasm for gun control legislation ramped up in the early 1990s with a solid majority of Democrats in favor and a considerable minority of Republicans for (including former President Ronald Reagan) and Brooks tried to stop such measures. He voted against the Brady Bill in 1993, being all too aware that this was political poison in his district. However, Brooks’ stance on guns didn’t stop him from voting for the omnibus 1994 crime bill that he sponsored and included a ban on semi-automatic firearms, a provision he had fought against. According to President Bill Clinton in his 2004 memoir, Brooks presciently warned on the provision, “the NRA would beat a lot of Democrats by terrifying gun owners” (The Crime Report). This vote for the crime bill resulted in his defeat to the bizarre Republican candidate Steve Stockman; he was the longest-serving incumbent to be defeated for reelection in American history.
Brooks was bitter about his 1994 defeat and that of the Democrats as a whole, calling it “The Hate Wave of ‘94” and stated on the Republicans, “They want to cut education. They want to cut Medicare. If they want more old people to suffer, more children to suffer, more young people to not get a shot at an education – if that’s what they want and the people endorse it, that’s the way it will be. I personally think that people will not like that very much and change it” (Ratcliffe).
Burka, P. & Smith, G. (1976, May). The Best, the Worst, and the Fair-To-Middlin’. Texas Monthly.
Former Texas Rep. Jack Brooks dies. (2012, December 5). Politico.
Jack Brooks Dies; Ousted After Backing Crime Bill With Assault Weapon Ban. (2012, December 5). The Crime Report.
McNulty, T. & McNulty, B. (2019, May 11). The Man Richard Nixon Called His ‘Executioner’. Politico.
Ratcliffe, R.G. (2018, April 12). A Jury of His Peers – and Karma – Convict Steve Stockman. Texas Monthly.
Robertson, R.J. (2013). Congressman Jack Brooks – “Taking Care of Business”. East Texas Historical Journal, 51(2).
Schudel, M. (2012, December 5). Jack Brooks, powerful congressman from Texas, dies at 89. The Washington Post.
To Recommit H.R. 14765, the Civil Rights Act of 1966, to the Judiciary Committee with instructions to delete Title VII, the open housing title. Govtrack.