Wilbur Daigh Mills

(b. 1909)

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(b. Kensett, Arkansas, 24 May 1909; d. Searcy, Arkansas, 2 May 1992)

US; member of the US House of Representatives 1939–77 Educated at Hendrix College and Harvard Law School, Wilbur Mills was first elected to Congress in 1938 following service as a county judge in Arkansas. As a long-time member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which he chaired from 1957 to 1975, Mills exercised massive control over all money bills. He built up a formidable expertise on all aspects of taxation and revenue as well as on tariff and trade legislation and social security and Medicare. Virtually anything touching federal spending had to pass through his hands. In addition to the influence given by Ways and Means policy jurisdiction, during the years of Mills's chairmanship Democratic committee assignments were handled by the chairman of this key committee, giving Mills substantial influence over his Democratic colleagues' careers.

A conservative Democrat whose opposition to civil rights precluded him from national office, Mills used his power autocratically but not ideologically. Ways and Means had no subcommittees so its power was not fragmented; and measures coming from Ways and Means were always voted a closed rule from the Rules Committee, so were not subject to floor amendment. Mills was thus rarely forced to compromise; yet he was a skilled and pragmatic negotiator, whose expertise in the detail of legislation was formidable. After the death of Sam Rayburn in 1962, there were few rivals to his congressional influence.

However, a bizarre set of events led to his fall from power in 1974, a time when Congress was beginning to revolt against the unfettered power of committee chairmen. When Mills's car was stopped by police, an intoxicated Mills was found with a stripper, Fanne Foxe, ‘the Argentine Firecracker’, who threw herself into the Tidal Basin. Mills, always a colourful personality, confessed to alcoholism and did not seek re-election the next year as chairman of Ways and Means. In 1976 he retired from Congress.

Subjects: Politics.

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