As a member of the newly formed Budget Committee, Congresswoman Marjorie Sewell Holt was the champion of fiscal conservatism in Congress, seeking to cap federal spending—with the exception of the defense budget— across the board. Famous for her sponsorship of legislation to end busing as a means of racial desegregation, Holt was a consistent supporter of the conservative social politics of the Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and Ronald Reagan administrations.
Marjorie Sewell was born on September 17, 1920, in Birmingham, Alabama, to Edward and Juanita Sewell. The oldest of four sisters, Marjorie Sewell spent most of her youth in Jacksonville, Florida. She graduated from Jacksonville Junior College in 1945. In December 1946, Sewell married Duncan Holt, an electrical engineer, and the couple raised three children: Rachel, Edward, and Victoria. That same year, she entered law school at the University of Florida at Gainesville, earning her LLB in 1949. The family moved to Maryland in 1950, where Marjorie Holt practiced law in Annapolis and became involved with GOP state politics. In 1963 Holt was appointed to the Anne Arundel County board of elections and served as supervisor of elections until 1965.1 She was elected Anne Arundel County circuit court clerk a year later, defeating longtime local Democratic leader, Louis Phipps Jr. She served as clerk until 1972.
When reapportionment created a new Maryland seat in the U.S. House in 1972, Holt decided to pursue her longtime desire to serve in Congress.2 As a conservative, Marjorie Holt confronted some challenges in the new district which included a portion of diverse Prince George’s County and a five-to-two ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans.3 Holt, however, also enjoyed some advantages. The district’s Democratic voters had a recent history of electing local Republican officials.4 The United States Naval Academy in Annapolis and Andrews Air Force Base, moreover, provided Holt pockets of conservative military voters.5 Holt later commented on her first campaign, “I saw the perfect district, the timing was right. I started early, amassed support, and muscled [my opponents] out.”6
After she handily defeated two challengers in the Republican primary, the general election race between Holt and her Democratic opponent, former state legislator and agency head Werner Fornos, was immediately dubbed a contest between conservatism and liberalism. Although both Holt and Fornos opposed busing as a means of desegregating schools, a particularly volatile issue in Prince George’s County, both candidates differed considerably on other issues, such as wage and price controls, taxes, the role of federal employees in political campaigns, and the war in Vietnam.7 Holt summarized her platform, saying, “My whole pitch is for less government.”8 She promised to reduce the size of the federal government through cutbacks in all nonmilitary government spending. Holt defeated Fornos, with 59 percent of the total vote.9 The aftermath of the election was bitter, as Fornos accused Holt of running a “hate campaign” and later charged Holt’s backers with violating campaign laws by spreading anonymous and false charges that Fornos was going to be indicted by a state grand jury.10 An Anne Arundel County grand jury later acquitted Holt of these charges.11 Holt easily was re-elected to the six succeeding Congresses, winning by no less than 58 percent of the total votes and, in 1980, taking a career best 71 percent of total returns.12
Holt soon established herself as one of the House’s staunchest defenders of local control over education. She led the charge in Congress to end the busing of children to different school districts in order to achieve desegregation.13 After the 1964 Civil Rights Act granted the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) the power to withhold federal money from school districts that did not meet certain racial percentage quotas, busing became a solution for creating greater diversity in schools. Holt called the busing system, which often placed middle-class and primarily white students in poorer schools, “the new racism.” “We should get back on the track and start making every school a good school in providing education for the children,” she countered.14 In 1974 the House passed Holt’s measure that prevented HEW from classifying schools by student and teacher racial quotas in order to determine federal funding, a move that Holt believed would end the need for busing.15 Although it was eventually rejected by the Senate, Holt’s amendment set precedent for a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution, introduced by Ohio Democrat Ronald Milton Mottl in 1979.16
In 1976 Holt left her seat on the House Administration Committee after serving only a partial term for a prestigious appointment to the Budget Committee. Created in 1974, the committee was charged with drafting the federal budget each April. It also featured a rotating membership, allowing Members to serve only six years in a 10-year period. In 1978 Holt countered the Democratic majority’s budget proposal by offering an alternative Republican plan, including an amendment that would slow spending by as much as seven percent over the previous year.17 Although her proposal failed by a 198-to-203 roll call vote, the practice of offering a substitute budget thereafter became standard strategy for the minority party.18 A career-long member of the Armed Services Committee, Holt also acted as the unofficial spokesperson for the military from her position on the Budget panel by attempting to protect military spending. Even after her departure from the Budget Committee in 1980, Holt often pushed her Armed Services Committee colleagues to ask for bigger defense allotments, despite apparent opposition on the Budget Committee. “Where are we going to get additional budgetary authority if we don’t ask for it?” she said.19 Holt returned to the forefront in economic policy when she gained a position on the Joint Economic Committee in 1983, serving until 1986.
Holt’s tough conservative policies were well respected among her Republican colleagues. However, she suspected that gender discrimination and her conservative “inflexibility” often kept her from attaining leadership positions.20 In 1975 Holt vied for the vacant chair of the Republican Research Committee, a congressional caucus which served as a legislative conservative think tank. Just before the vote, Minority Whip Robert Henry Michel of Illinois endorsed Minnesota Representative William Eldridge Frenzel, arguing that the conservative bent of the rest of the Republican leaders had to be balanced by a moderate. Though Michel later championed women’s participation in the party, some House Members suggested that he did not support Holt’s ascendancy based on her gender.21 She lost another race in 1981 to fill the vacant chairmanship of the Republican Policy Committee. Holt was the favorite for the position until popular freshman and former White House Chief of Staff Richard Bruce Cheney of Wyoming, made a last-minute pitch for the chairmanship, defeating Holt in a 99-to-68 vote.22
Marjorie Holt was reticent to embrace the political cause of women’s rights and liberation. “I’ve always thought of myself as a person and I certainly haven’t been discriminated against,” she told voters in her first House race.23 She warned feminists, “I don’t think we should de-emphasize the satisfaction of raising children.”24 Consistent with her fight for a smaller federal government, Holt voted in 1976 against providing federal money for daycare centers and abortions.25 In 1980 she joined other abortion opponents in barring federal employees from using their health insurance to pay for abortions.26 After its creation in April 1977, Holt initially declined to join the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues. In order to gain the membership of all women in Congress, caucus co-chairs Elizabeth Holtzman of New York and Margaret M. Heckler of Massachusetts convinced Holt to join the caucus in 1979 by assuring her that Members would be allowed to ally with or distance themselves from the caucus as they saw politically fit. Moreover, the caucus would not publicly endorse any issue that was not agreed to unanimously.27 Holt resigned her membership in 1981, when the caucus altered some of the rules that persuaded her to join.28
Citing a desire to spend more time with her family, Holt retired from Congress in January 1987 at the end of the 99th Congress (1985–1987), at the age of 66, and returned to practicing law at a firm in Baltimore, Maryland. Holt remained active in the Republican Party. She was nominated by President Ronald Reagan as a member of the General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament in July 1987. In 2000 Holt served as the Maryland state co-chair for the George W. Bush and Richard Cheney presidential campaign and was named a member of the Maryland campaign leadership team seeking to re-elect the Bush ticket in 2004.29 Marjorie Holt died on January 6, 2018, in Severna Park, Maryland.30
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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