Former Rep. Jamie Lloyd Whitten, a Mississippi farm boy who served a record 53 years in the House and exerted quiet but powerful control over the nation’s purse strings, died Saturday. He was 85.
Whitten, a Democrat who retired in 1994, died from complications of chronic cardiac and renal disease, said Drs. Keith Mansel and Michael King, his physicians at Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi in Oxford. He had been hospitalized since Monday.
Whitten had battled health problems since 1992, including several strokes and a recent bout with pneumonia.
A conservative Democrat, Whitten served with 11 presidents and was chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee from 1979 to 1992.
He was elected to Congress on Nov. 4, 1941, about a month before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. At his retirement, he was the last member still serving who had been in Congress when the United States entered World War II.
Whitten won re-election 26 times. On Jan. 6, 1992, he broke the record held by Georgia Democrat Carl Vinson for longest service in the House. The record for service in Congress is still held by the late Carl Hayden, the Arizona Democrat who was in the House and later the Senate for a combined total of 56 years.
“I really meant to stay only three years, but I got swept up in all this,” Whitten once said.
Critics said Whitten epitomized a system that divided federal spoils instead of improving the economic health of the nation and called him a “pork barrel king.”
He opposed Medicare, expansion of the food stamp program and nearly all anti-poverty programs, and voted against all major civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
Whitten’s Southern accent, described more as a slur than a drawl, was particularly difficult for some northern representatives to understand.
“On many occasions I have not understood a word that he has said to me and I sometimes wonder whether he liked it that way,” Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, once said.