Wayne Hays: The “Meanest Man in Congress”

In 1948, the Republicans lost their delusions that the 1946 election was a repudiation of the New Deal, and one of their losses was Earl Lewis losing to Democrat Wayne Hays (1911-1989) in Ohio’s 18th district. Hays, a staunch supporter of President Truman, became known as tough and mean; when Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.) wanted the second investigation into tax-exempt institutions, also known as the Reece Committee, undermined, he picked him to join the committee. Hays would proceed to fight the committee at every step of the way, criticizing it for having nine of its ten witnesses being part of the committee staff and walking out after the witness outside of the committee, San Francisco attorney Aaron Sargent, charged Senator Paul Howard Douglas (D-Ill.) of having connections to socialist organizations. Hays was ultimately successful in hamstringing the committee’s public operations, and this in addition to the unfortunate timing of the Reece Committee’s report relegated it to being forgotten by most. He was a liberal overall with his MC-Index life score being a 19%, but he was also a staunch party loyalist: he demanded the stripping of Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) of committee assignments for endorsing President Eisenhower for reelection over his view that the 1956 GOP platform was better on civil rights than the Democratic one. He would after voting against excluding instead of censuring Powell, vote for the resolution excluding him from the 90th Congress for misuse of office funds. Hays had some personal controversies of his own. In 1963, he was criticized for taking the head waiter of the House, Ernest Petinaud, to London and Paris on a junket, having the House pay for all his expenses. Hays defended the expense by saying that he served as a messenger for the junket and that he was invited partly because he was black and partly as a reward for being a nice fellow (Langeveld). In 1966, Hays again attracted controversy for how he handled a traffic stop. He was cited for speeding and for driving away from the officer who pulled him over for having offended him (Langeveld).

Hays was a loyal supporter of most items in the Democratic agenda, and in 1969 he succeeded Omar Burleson (D-Tex.) as chair of the House Administration Committee. It was during the Nixon years that Hays reached the zenith of his power, ruling at least partly out of fear that if he was upset, he would cut off the air conditioning to the offending member of Congress. He was indeed the most feared man in Congress, known sometimes as “the Archie Bunker of Capitol Hill” and became known for taking pleasure in settling personal scores (The Los Angeles Times). As head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Hays was someone who especially Democrats had to please. He backed public financing for presidential elections but not for Congressional elections, holding that it would be too chaotic.  Among actions that caused controversy included the removal of jump seats in the House elevators, requiring staff to stand at all times, and banning tips for House barbers (Langeveld). Hays and Phil Burton (D-Calif.), another fellow known for being quite tough, formed an alliance for leading the House. It was Burton who referred to him as “the meanest man in Congress” (Langeveld). Republican Representative Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania (1983) agreed, “While his colleagues might have argued over whether he, as chairman of the House Administrative Committee and the Democratic Campaign Committee, was the second or third most powerful member of Congress, few disagreed that he stood in a class by himself as the meanest man in the House” (63-64).

Although Hays was indeed tough and mean, he was reelected time and again from this otherwise competitive district as he excelled at constituent service and was highly attentive. As an obituary noted, “He could stand at a rally and call voters by their first names; he sent greeting cards to mark marriages, anniversaries, births and graduations” (The New York Times). Hays would regularly help constituents with issues surrounding the federal bureaucracy and they thanked him through reelection. He also was known for taking heat for Congress when others would rather not step up.

As it turns out, Wayne Hays was not unassailable in his personal life. In 1976, his mistress, Elizabeth Ray, revealed that he had hired her as his secretary despite having no secretarial skills whatsoever and he had given her a lavish office. At the time of the breaking of the story, he had been married to his second wife for six weeks, and Ray was offended at not being invited to the wedding. As Ray recounted, Hays stated the marriage wouldn’t change the relationship “if you behave yourself” (Clark & Maxa). Shortly after the revelation, Hays almost died of an overdose of sleeping pills. He did admit to the affair in a speech before the House on May 25, 1976, stating, “I hope that when the time comes to leave this House, which I love, Wayne Hays may be remembered as mean, arrogant, cantankerous and tough, but I hope Wayne Hays will never be thought of as dishonest” (Los Angeles Times). His time came in September 1976, as he opted to resign in the face of an Ethics Committee investigation for misuse of government funds. It was not lost on observers that Hays was in hot water for one of the reasons Powell was, improperly employing a person they were in a relationship with. He made a brief comeback when in 1978 he won election to the Ohio state House, but lost reelection in 1980 by 500 votes to future Congressman Bob Ney.


Clark, M. & Maxa, R. (1976, May 23). Closed Session Romance on the Hill. The Washington Post.

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Langeveld, D. (2009, July 5). Wayne L. Hays: money for nothing. The Downfall Dictionary.

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Shuster, B. (1983). Believing in America. New York, NY: William Morrow & Company.

Wayne Hays, a Scourge of Congress, Dies: Longtime Lawmaker’s Career Ruined by Affair With Staff Clerk. (1989, February 12). Los Angeles Times.

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Wayne L. Hays of Ohio Dies at 77; Scandal Ended Career in Congress. (1989, February 11). The New York Times.

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3 thoughts on “Wayne Hays: The “Meanest Man in Congress”

  1. The further details of Hays’ obstructions in the Reece Committee are certainly something. According to The New American, Chairman B. Carroll Reece declined to rule Hays’ rude behavior out of order during hearings because Reece had a past scandal of his own. Reece apparently was arrested for homosexuality in a public bathroom during his early House tenure, and the threat of public exposure regarding the past scandal prevented him from taking extensive action against Hays.

  2. I plan on including this allegation when I write a profile on Reece himself. Reece, as a Republican politician from the South who was in office over 30 years, was quite a rarity in his time and certainly warrants his own entry. It makes me wonder how many closet cases there were in office in the past. Harold Knutson, who spearheaded tax policy for the 80th Congress, almost certainly was one, yet he survived the allegations and lost reelection primarily because he was overconfident.

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