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Presidents and Congress as Seen Through a New Deal Prism

Donald A. Ritchie, historian of the U.S. Senate and author of the forthcoming The U.S. Congress: A Very Short History, as well as Our Constitution, and The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion, appeared on a panel about “The Uses and Abuses of New Deal History,” at the meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Washington, on April 8, 2010. Summarized here, his remarks dealt with common misperceptions about Roosevelt and Congress.

All presidents since the 1940s have been held to standards set by Franklin D. Roosevelt with regard to their relations with Congress. There is a common assumption that at least during Roosevelt’s first term, a compliant Congress gave him everything he wanted, and that the New Deal was exclusively an executive branch creation, with legislation written at the White House and promptly passed in Congress, sometimes without being read. This argument has been employed to promote the notion of presidential primacy in the federal government, from the “Imperial Presidency” to the “unitary executive.” While the image contains some truth, it is also clouded with inaccuracies.

The media has measured Presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama by what they accomplished in their first hundred days. This prospect was so troubling to John F. Kennedy that he added a disclaimer to his inaugural address that “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days.” Roosevelt’s First Hundred Days were unique. Republicans had lost 100 seats in the House (by comparison, the Democratic sweep in 1964 added 44 seats in the House; and the Republican victory in 1994 election brought a gain of 54). Those new members in 1933 looked to Roosevelt for leadership because the national economy had gone into free fall since the election, creating a sense of dire emergency that required extraordinary measures.

After Roosevelt called Congress into special session, he sent them a banking bill that the House passed that morning, the Senate that afternoon, and the president signed that night, the beginning of an unprecedented burst of legislative activity. But of all the bills Roosevelt signed during the Hundred Days, only two had fully originated with him: the Civilian Conservation Act and the Economy Act–which cut federal salaries and veterans’ pensions. Even the banking bill had been drafted by volunteers who stayed on from Hoover’s Treasury Department. Other ideas bubbled up from congressional sources. Commonly after there has been a change in party control of the White House, Congress will dust off measures that previous presidents vetoed. So Senator George Norris, a progressive Republican from Nebraska, revived the Tennessee Valley Authority, which Roosevelt now signed. Members of Congress also pressed on a skeptical Roosevelt the idea of federal deposit insurance, which today is counted as one of his smartest achievements. Other of Roosevelt’s proposals were designed to head off an activist Congress. It was Alabama Senator Hugo Black’s proposal of a 30-hour work week that prompted the Roosevelt Administration to propose the National Recovery Act as a less drastic alternative.

A major congressional investigation also generating an abundance of publicity that the president was able to use to promote sweeping financial reforms. The Pecora investigation, actually hearings of the Senate Banking Committee, conducted by its counsel Ferdinand Pecora, had begun during the Hoover administration and continued with Roosevelt’s blessing. Pecora called the nation’s biggest bankers and brokers and confronted them of evidence of financial misconduct that led to the economic collapse. Although Pecora was too busy investigating to draft legislation, his revelations lay the groundwork for the Glass-Steagall Act, the Securities Act of 1932, the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934, and the Public Utilities Holding Company Act of 1935.

Rather than being viewed as a president riding roughshod over Congress, FDR’s impressive first term deserves to be held as a model of cooperation between the executive and legislative branch, working together to devise legislative solutions to a national emergency.

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