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Joel T. Broyhill, 86; Vigorous 11-Term N.Va. Congressman

By Bart Barnes
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Joel T. Broyhill, 86, an 11-term Republican congressman from Arlington County who became an institution on the political landscape of metropolitan Washington during 22 years of service on Capitol Hill, died of congestive heart failure and pneumonia Sept. 24 at his home in Arlington.

Mr. Broyhill won his seat in Congress on the coattails of Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential landslide in 1952, and he lost it in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate crisis and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. He played a key role in vital decisions affecting the nation's capital and the Washington area as an influential member of the House District Committee and a master craftsman of legislative tactics and strategy.

As a lawmaker, Mr. Broyhill was best known for local matters. He sponsored legislation that led to the construction of the Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson bridges across the Potomac River and the second span of the 14th Street Bridge. He also sponsored a measure that led to the widening of Shirley Highway. He fought for better pay and working conditions for federal employees, federal aid to local school systems and financial support for Metro.

He was an unrelenting and outspoken opponent of home rule for the District, arguing that the U.S. Constitution placed ultimate responsibility for the nation's capital with Congress, and he battled for years against measures to increase the authority of city residents to manage D.C. affairs.

For these efforts he was bitterly criticized by D.C. leaders, who ascribed racial motives to his opposition to self-government for the majority-black city. But he won widespread support in Northern Virginia, where his stand was interpreted as a first line of defense against any attempt by the city to levy taxes on suburban commuters.

He supported the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, which allowed D.C. residents to vote for president and vice president, and the 26th Amendment, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. He also backed aid to grandparents who cared for their grandchildren.

On the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which handles all tax, tariff and Social Security legislation, Mr. Broyhill became one of the ranking Republicans, and for most of his time in Congress he also served on the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee. In 2000, Congress named the postal building at 8409 Lee Hwy. in Merrifield after him.

On national issues, he supported the Republican legislative programs of Eisenhower and Nixon. In the Democratic administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, he opposed programs of the New Frontier and the Great Society.

Mr. Fix-It

To his constituents in Arlington, Falls Church and sections of Fairfax County and Alexandria, Mr. Broyhill was the quintessential Mr. Fix-It. A word from his office could expedite delivery of a benefits check from a recalcitrant Social Security Administration or speed a mortgage loan approval from a sluggish Veterans Administration. An office staffer used to keep a stack of blank Western Union telegrams on his desk, just for constituent complaints against federal agencies. A messenger stopped by regularly to collect the wires for immediate delivery.

For unemployed Northern Virginians, a recommendation from Mr. Broyhill was an invaluable asset in landing a job within the federal bureaucracy. For collectors of souvenirs, he produced flags that had been flown over the Capitol. He could be counted on to find rare federal agency reports or yearbooks. In a pinch, he could locate scarce tickets for an Army-Navy football game. Over the years, he sent out thousands of Christmas cards, and each June he could count on receiving 50 or 60 wedding invitations.

When he took his seat in the House of Representatives in 1953, Mr. Broyhill was the first congressman from Virginia's new 10th Congressional District, which had been carved out of the old 8th District, then represented by Howard W. "Judge" Smith, a legendary and powerful Democrat who controlled legislation through his chairmanship of the House Rules Committee.

Although of different political parties, Mr. Broyhill and Smith shared a conservative political ideology, and the veteran Rules Committee chairman took an avuncular interest in the new congressman, teaching him many tricks of the legislative trade.

In this relationship, the two men reflected a trend that in years to come would be of singular significance in the politics of the South: the passing of the conservative mantle and the power that went with it from Old Guard Democrats to a new generation of Southern Republicans. Like Mr. Broyhill, many of them would represent the suburbs, districts that were neither rural nor urban and, for the most part, new to the post-World War II South.

Writing on Mr. Broyhill's electoral popularity in 1966, Washington Post columnist Richard Corrigan observed: "Going beyond the matter of Congressional favors, Broyhill represents his constituents in another way. He is, simply, one of them. He is a war hero turned postwar booster, a hell-of-a-fellow in a new green Caddy, a hard-driving salesman who sells himself, a middlebrow who is comfortable in his convictions and tells the voters what they want to hear but can wink in the middle of a platitude, too."

Joel Thomas Broyhill was born in Hopewell, Va. In 1937, he moved to Arlington when his father relocated his building and real estate firm, M.T. Broyhill & Sons, in the area. He attended George Washington University.

During World War II, he was an Army captain and commander of a rifle company. He narrowly escaped death when Allied planes bombed the Nazis, and the explosions harmed his hearing for life. Captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, he escaped six months later from a prisoner-of-war camp and rejoined advancing U.S. forces. Among his military awards was a Bronze Star.

"Anybody who thinks war is a glorious, grand thing is crazy," he once said. "It's a dirty, deadly thing. And it takes several years out of the prime of many young men's lives. I would not want to go through it again, and I wouldn't take $10 million for it.

"But it's an experience that I think is invaluable, learning how to exist, how to be part of a training, training other people, disciplining yourself, being subject to discipline, assessing yourself the discipline for others you are training, commanding others, having to move from place to place like you have to, learning to exist on what was there."

After the war, he returned to Arlington and joined his father's business, which prospered in the postwar suburban real estate boom. He became a partner and general manager in the company, and he also became active in Republican Party politics. He was president of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Arlington County Planning Commission and in 1950 was elected president of the Arlington Republican Club.

Effective and Infuriating

In 1952, he won his seat in Congress on his 33rd birthday, defeating Democrat Edmund D. Campbell by 322 votes. In subsequent elections, he defeated his opponents handily.

As a politician, Mr. Broyhill was blunt and effective, but he had a boyish grin and an easy conversational manner. He dressed impeccably in well-tailored suits, and he was said to have been among the most generous tippers in Congress. To his friends, he projected an image of goodwill and decency.

His opponents found him infuriating. On one occasion in 1972, he single-handedly prevented a House District Committee vote on home rule legislation by refusing to enter the committee meeting room when the panel was one member short of quorum. He so enjoyed the maneuver that he remained standing outside the committee room for 30 minutes while home rule supporters pleaded with him to come inside.

During the Nixon administration, Mr. Broyhill tried to persuade the president to fire Walter E. Washington, the District's appointed mayor-commissioner, and he was a frequent attacker of Marion Barry's in the years Barry was a community activist and a critic of the D.C. police.

During the later years of his congressional career, the primary issue in most of his reelection campaigns was Mr. Broyhill himself. For Northern Virginia Democrats, trying to figure out a way to defeat the congressman became almost an obsession.

He always insisted that, as a congressman, he'd do a favor for anyone who asked. Over the years, his opponents attacked this policy as serving special interests, including Mr. Broyhill's personal interests. In 1974, the year Mr. Broyhill lost his seat, he released for the first time an accounting of his net worth. It was $3.89 million, mostly in real estate investments such as apartments, businesses and shopping centers in Arlington.

His election defeat by Democrat Joseph L. Fisher was considered a major national upset. He had announced his intentions to retire but was persuaded to seek another term at the request of Vice President Gerald R. Ford. In an interview after the election, Mr. Broyhill attributed his defeat to what he called "smears" and the post-Watergate disenchantment with politics.

"I'm not bitter," he said. "I have no ill feelings towards the people. They have cause to feel that way because Watergate was a rotten situation. I can't blame the public for being bitter over Watergate."

After leaving office, Mr. Broyhill served as campaign manager for John W. Warner's successful first campaign for the Senate, in 1978. But primarily, he returned to the family real estate and investment business. The firm developed several neighborhoods in Northern Virginia, including Broyhill McLean Estates, Broyhill Forest and Sterling Park. He later was the lead developer for Kiln Creek in Newport News, Va. He worked until shortly before his final illness, his family said.

His first wife, Jane Marshall Bragg, died in 1978.

Survivors include his wife of 25 years, Suzanne M. Broyhill of Arlington; three daughters from his first marriage, Nancy Broyhill of Great Falls, Jane Anne Houser of Vienna and Jeanne Marie Broyhill of Arlington; a stepdaughter, Kimberly Broyhill Lutz of New York City and Princeton, N.J.; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Staff writer Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.

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