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Remembering Warren Rudman—and a Greek tragedy at the ICC

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor

Even The New York Times, the nation’s newspaper of record, missed, in its lengthy obituary, the absorbing connection between railroads and former Republican Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, who died Nov. 19 at age 82.

Rudman, whose name is most associated with budget and national security issues, served in the Senate from 1980 to 1992. Yet there is a railroad connection that deserves mention.

In 1976, while serving as New Hampshire’s attorney general, Rudman became the central character in a Greek tragedy of sorts when he was nominated by President Gerald Ford to succeed retiring Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) member and Republican Kenneth Tuggle. If confirmed to the post by the Senate, Rudman was also to be named by Ford as chairman of the agency, in place of deregulation opponent and Republican George Stafford. Economic regulation of railroads is the job of the ICC, now the Surface Transportation Board.

When Ford entered the White House in 1974, Stafford was regarded as an impediment to Ford’s transportation deregulation ambitions. Therefore, insisted Republican deregulation strategists, Stafford had to go.

In a letter to Sen. Vance Hartke (D-Ind.), then chairman of the Senate Surface Transportation Subcommittee, Stafford declared that the Ford Administration’s deregulation proposals lacked “objective evidence.” To others, Stafford termed Ford’s deregulation initiatives “untried theories” that would destroy “the important underpinnings of the existing common carrier system.” Of deregulation advocates, Stafford said, “People who want to relax regulation should be more wary of what they’re doing.”

While Stafford could not be dislodged from his ICC seat prior to expiration of his term in 1980, he could be ousted from the chairman’s post at the pleasure of the president. Stafford was the first permanent and presidentially appointed chairman of the agency. The chairmanship previously had rotated among ICC members, but President Richard Nixon’s reorganization plan to give the White House control of the chairman was approved by Congress in 1969 (83 Stat. 859).

So, on Feb. 4, 1976, Ford nominated Rudman to the ICC, and it was leaked to the media that Ford intended to make Rudman the ICC chairman following Senate confirmation.

Then came the Greek tragedy in the person of New Hampshire Democratic Sen. John Durkin.

Within hours of Ford announcing the Rudman nomination, Durkin issued a press release saying, “I find it a strange coincidence that the President [who had been elevated to President upon the resignation of Nixon, and was then in a primary battle for his own nomination as Republican candidate for President] would nominate a moderate Republican from New Hampshire on the eve of that state’s primary where Mr. Ford faces stiff conservative opposition [from Ronald Reagan].

Actually, this had little to do with Ford’s quest for delegates in the New Hampshire primary. Durkin earlier had almost failed to reach the Senate—and Rudman was partly to blame. Political payback had arrived.

In 1974, Durkin had sought to claim his Senate seat by virtue of a 12-vote victory over Republican challenger and Congressman Louis Wyman. The election was contested, and a three-person panel, which included Rudman, sought to award the Senate seat to Wyman based on a recount. But Durkin gained a new election, and won by 28,000 votes.

Republican partisans had failed to unhitch Durkin’s political wagon, and politicians know that when you take aim at a king you had best not merely wound him.

Aware that Senate courtesy demands support by a nominee’s home-state senators, and recognizing that Sen. Durkin never would countenance his confirmation to the ICC, Rudman voluntarily withdrew his name.

Fate smiled on Rudman, who won his Senate seat in 1979 by defeating Durkin. And that’s how Warren Rudman went to the United States Senate instead of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Stafford, meanwhile, remained ICC chairman until 1977, when Democratic President Jimmy Carter, who signed the Staggers Act, which partially deregulated railroads, into law, named deregulation advocate and Democrat Dan O’Neal the ICC chairman.

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