Delbert L. Latta, a conservative Republican who represented northwest Ohio in the U.S. House for 30 years, was a bulldog defender of President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate hearings and helped President Ronald Reagan cut the federal budget, died May 12 at a nursing home in Bowling Green, Ohio. He was 96.
The death was confirmed to the Associated Press by a spokeswoman for his son, Rep. Robert E. Latta (R-Ohio). No cause was reported.
The elder Mr. Latta, a lawyer, was a member of the Ohio Senate for five years before winning a U.S. House seat in 1958 in a district that included Bowling Green and had long been a Republican stronghold. The safety of his seat over the decades allowed him to remain an unwavering party loyalist on economic and social concerns.
Although little known nationally, he was a significant backstage player. On the Rules Committee early in his tenure, he allied with conservative Democrats to indefinitely postpone or attach poison-pill amendments to legislation they deemed too liberal.
His reputation as a partisan warrior won him a spot on the Judiciary Committee in 1974, when the panel was holding hearings on the crimes and cover-up stemming from the 1972 break-in at the Watergate office complex, where the Democratic National Committee had offices.
Several Nixon operatives had been linked to the burglary and, in February 1974, the full House voted to allow the Judiciary Committee to review grounds for impeachment of the president and gave the committee subpoena power.
Mr. Latta was tapped by party leaders to be the “point man” for the imperiled Nixon. During the televised committee hearings, the congressman tried to delay the proceedings by demanding very specific information from those who would accuse the president of wrongdoing.
“A common jaywalker is entitled to know when and where the alleged offense occurred,” he asked. “Is the president of the United States entitled to less?”
As the situation grew dire for Nixon, Mr. Latta sought to discredit Albert E. Jenner Jr., the noted Chicago lawyer who came to favor impeachment while serving as chief GOP counsel on the House Judiciary Committee’s inquiry.
Mr. Latta publicly criticized Jenner — newly fired from his Republican post but rejoining on the Democratic side — for having once headed a bar association committee that criticized anti-prostitution laws. Mr. Latta’s remark drew a rebuke by a fellow Buckeye, Rep. John Seiberling (D), who demanded an apology for “unprofessional and unjudicial comments on a completely extraneous matter.”
“The gentleman is entitled to his opinion,” Mr. Latta replied, “and that’s all it is.”
In July 1974, the Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon. The president resigned in August, before the full House voted whether to approve the articles for a Senate trial.
Mr. Latta’s indefatigable support for the president brought him a plum role in 1975 as the top GOP member of the newly formed House Budget Committee. He fought for reductions in domestic spending, which he saw as rife with fraud and waste.
Working with then-Rep. Phil Gramm of Texas — a Democrat at the time — Mr. Latta shepherded passage in 1981 of an economic bill that increased military spending and significantly lowered discretionary and entitlement spending.
Mr. Latta was sometimes accused of cutting aid for programs that would help the poorest and most vulnerable citizens. “If I were president,” he told The Washington Post in 1980, “I’d say to every department of government, cut back spending without cutting back on services.”
Delbert Leroy Latta was born in Weston, Ohio, on March 5, 1920. After service in the Army and Marine Corps Reserve, he received undergraduate and law degrees from Ohio Northern University.
Besides his son, survivors include his wife of 67 years, Rose Mary Kiene Latta; a daughter, Rose Ellen Jackson; two sisters; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Mr. Latta did not seek reelection in 1988. That year, broadcaster Roger Mudd interviewed him for the public television show “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” and called the retiring congressman a “pugnacious politician [who] is privately a considerate and unfailingly courteous man.”
Mudd asked Mr. Latta how, after 15 terms in office, he thought Congress was fulfilling its role. The Ohioan said the greatest change he had observed was the “shirking of responsibility” by politicians at the state and local levels who wanted the federal government to foot the bill for “little projects” like parks, streets and pools that were not in its domain.
He said that the approach “relieves the states and it relieves the local communities of that responsibility of levying those taxes and collecting them. So they become the good guys, and we become the bad guys.”
That is why, he added, “the people disfavor the Congress as much as they do.”
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