What's Wrong with Congress?


By JOSEPH C. O'MAHONEY, United States Senator from Wyoming

Delivered over the Red Network, June 17, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 578-580.

THE freedom we are determined to make secure by victory in this war is founded, first of all, upon the right of men to govern themselves, that is to say, upon the right of men to determine for themselves, the character and the limits of the authority that may be exercised over them. That is why the legislative power, rather than the executive or judicial, has always been recognized as the basis of democracy.

In the United States that power is vested in the Congress, a body chosen by the people in a manner intended to make it fairly representative of all classes and all areas. From Congress and from it alone may come the laws for the executive to enforce and the courts to interpret. Whenever and wherever the law-making power passes from the people or their freely chosen representatives, democracy perishes. That is what has happened in Europe and in Asia. When we fight against the arbitrary leaders who have taken the lawmaking power from the people, we fight to preserve popular government.

It is not a passing incident of small moment that Congress is now under an attack more widespread and dishonest than any ever launched before. It is a symptom of the economic and political disease that afflicts the whole world. The same factors that have destroyed parliamentary government abroad are operating here. The same philosophies that have produced dictatorial tyranny in Europe and Asia have their spokesmen here. If you doubt that the apostles of collectivism have been at work here, consult the records of the Department of Justice and of the Post Office Department and read some of the subversive matter we are only now beginning to exclude from the mails.

I am aware, of course, that few of the current critics of Congress are collectivists. The editors and commentators who are pleased to regard the Congress as a conglomeration of time-serving, petty politicians interested only in gaining and holding a job on the public payroll at whatever sacrifice of personal integrity and patriotism are, for the most part, merely indulging the time-honored and traditional American custom of denouncing the opposition. Some of them are yielding to the effects of taut nerves and high blood pressure.

To all this members of Congress are accustomed. They have taken it in their stride and if the present attack were like those of the past, it could be shrugged off as the others have been shrugged off. But this is something deeper. This attack veils an assault upon representative government itself. The fuel, in many instances, is being furnished by those who regard the Congress as an impediment to the establishment of an all-powerful central authority over the people. It is of the utmost importance, therefore, that we should carefully analyze the source and character of the criticism that has been leveled at your Congress. It is of little importance what happens to the individual members of the House or the Senate, but it is essential to the maintenance of liberty that the institution itself shall not be undermined.

National magazines, national press syndicates and national radio chains have become the principal vehicles for the transmission of opinion on every war development. These judgments, formulated chiefly by metropolitan contacts in Washington or New York and expressed by editors and commentators, are transmitted daily into every hamlet of the country. One may acknowledge that for the most part they represent honest and patriotic conclusions and still, at the same time, point out that though they seem to be national they really represent only that aspect of the national scene which is visible from either the financial or political capital of the nation.

These writers and talkers, like the managers of big business and like the technicians of the War Production Board and other war agencies, have the point of view of the big city. Frequently they have either the Big Business complex or the Big Government complex and as a consequence anyattempt by a member of Congress to speak for the people or industries of his own state or district is to their minds an unhappy expression of narrow sectionalism that should be sharply condemned.

Important and necessary as is the metropolitan point of view, it is not the whole story of the war effort, for it is the normal and patriotic activity of the whole 130 millions of us that will win the coming victory. In the villages, towns and counties represented here by members of Congress are to be found both brain power and patriotic devotion equal to that of the national editors who are so ready to dismiss the local picture and criticize members of Congress who do not hesitate to express it.

By the very nature of their work, the national editors are exponents of centralism. We all know that centralism in business and in politics has been the principal cause of the crisis in which we are involved. It was business centralism that brought about the depression. It was political centralism that brought about the war. And while it is essential for the winning of the war that the power of the national government be expanded, it is equally essential for the preservation of economic and political independence in the future that the expansion shall not be so great as to destroy the very basis of free society, namely, local economic independence.

Not only are these national commentators oblivious sometimes of the needs of the people out through the country, but, it must also be borne in mind, they carry no personal or official responsibility for making decisions. They are solely purveyors of opinion. They are observers and critics only, and although they perform a most valuable function, it must not be forgotten that it is much easier to express an opinion that this or that course should be taken than it is by your vote actually to commit your country to a particular course. The radio and editorial strategists who, day after day, so easily plan the war and make the peace do not carry in their hearts and minds the burden that rests upon the Commander-in-Chief, upon heads of the Army or Navy, or even on the humble members of Congress.

The case against the Congress as made out by these facile judges of economics, war and statecraft, is generally that by reason of selfish and sectional concern the legislative body has hampered the executive and impeded the war effort. The truth is exactly the reverse. Far from impeding preparation for war, the Congress has loyally supported the President in his foreign policy and has moved as rapidly toward all-out war effort as is possible in a democracy.

A country such as ours is not geared to war. It detests war and is not easily moved to take up arms. The Congress of the United States did not hold back, and the fact that today, scarcely more than six months after Pearl Harbor, our fighters are flying or sailing on every ocean and battling on every continent is as much to the credit of Congress as to that of any other branch of the government.

Let it not be overlooked that it was Representative James W. Wadsworth of New York and Senator Edward R. Burke of Nebraska who first urged the selective service law. Without that law, we would not now be as ready as we are. We would not now be able to point to a well-trained army of 3,000,000 citizen soldiers and General Marshall would not now be talking of a second front if these two members of Congress had not, long in advance of the executive, taken the initiative when they did. It was this same Representative Wadsworth who on May 16, wrote to the editor of a New York daily that he was "both depressed and amazed" at the character of the attack that had been leveled at Congress. And it was a nameless writer in a national magazine who, last May, patronizingly characterized the author of the Selective Service Act as "lazy"!

William L. Batt, one of the ablest and most efficient of the excellent staff Donald Nelson has gathered about him, announced only two weeks ago that war production is facing a shortage of strategic and critical materials. Shall we blame Congress for that? Not very well. As long ago as 1937 in the House and 1938 in the Senate, the respective committees on Military Affairs began hearings on the possibility of developing supplies of these commodities. Bills were introduced in both houses by numerous Senators and Representatives. On February 28, 1939, Senator Elbert Thomas of Utah, who had begun urging the accumulation of stockpiles as long ago as 1934, brought a favorable report to the floor of the Senate (Report No. 119, 76th Congress, 1st Session). This report discloses that while the proposal was favored in principle by various executive departments, nevertheless, the War Department, the Navy Department, the Treasury and the Department of Commerce ail wrote to the committees the doleful verdict, "the legislation would not be in accord with the financial program of the President."

Whatever may have been the reason for this adverse action, the bill became law on June 7, 1939, more than three years ago. Congress did its part and the shortages of rubber, tin, chromium, etc., cannot be charged to the legislative branch.

It was on July 30, 1941, about 11 months ago, that Congress authorized the construction of pipe lines to defense areas as a war measure. It was only last week that the construction of a pipe line from Texas to Illinois was authorized. Meanwhile, the use of railroad tank cars for transporting petroleum was more than quadrupled and a reduction of freight rates was promoted by the studies of a Senate committee.

The record is clear. The nation would have plenty of rubber and there would be no prospect of nation-wide gasoline rationing with its threat to the war effort and to civilian industry alike if the authority which the Congress gave years ago had been used.

Mr. Frederic A. Delano, Chairman of the National Resources Planning Board, left for Canada last week to investigate the facts with respect to the Alaska highway. Work on this road began in March, 1942, less than three months ago. Congress gave the authority to build the road four years ago by the Act of May 31, 1938, and extended it by the Act of June 11, 1940.

With respect to the building of the Navy and the expansion of air power, Congress has for years been ahead of the departments. While the admirals were still talking in terms of battleships, Congress was talking of an air force. While the War Department was holding back, even with the world aflame, Congress was providing enlarged appropriations for aviation.

Seven years ago, Congress enacted the Thomas-Wilcox air base bill to authorize the construction of six Army air bases. Only two of them were built before the crisis was upon us.

All this was done without regard for sectionalism or selfish interest. Before Pearl Harbor, the President, with clarity of vision, saw what was coming and prepared as rapidly as public opinion would allow. In every step he was sustained by the Congress. All the power and all the money he sought were granted. Since Pearl Harbor, there has not been even a sign of division.

What, then, is the ground of criticism? The Congress has rudely ventured to call busy agency executives before its committees to tell about the progress of the war effort. These executives have plenty of time to make speeches on the radio, to have their pictures taken for the news reels, to takeadvantage of all the modern avenues of publicity, including the distribution of reams of press releases, but it is somewhat annoying, we are told, to talk to Congress. True, the executives themselves do not make this complaint. It is made by the critics of Congress, but the record I have just recited demonstrates that delay and ineptitude in the accumulation of necessary war stockpiles, in the building of military roads, in the expansion of the Army and the Navy might indeed have been decreased if there had been more rather than fewer hearings.

Again, the Truman Committee in the Senate, the Vinson Committee in the House, the Appropriation Committees of both houses, the Byrd Joint Committee on non-essential expenditures, have been tremendously effective in reducing inefficiency and waste. Hundreds of millions of dollars of unwarranted profits under improvident contracts have been recovered or prevented by the work of these committees. The production of aluminum and other war materials has been stimulated, the executive agencies have been kept on their toes and the war effort has been immeasurably advanced because Congress, your Congress, has been on the job.

What other ground of criticism is there? The Congress did not force the hand of the President and provoke domestic disunity on the labor issue in the face of the war. It has refused to abandon the farmer and the little businessman to execution on the judgment of centralizers. It has upon occasion concerned itself with patronage.

On the first score, the fact that American planes were battering the Japs in New Guinea and the Coral Sea in May, victoriously turning back the Japanese Navy at Midway on June 7 and flying over the Black Sea on June 13 is proof of the wisdom of the President's policy and of the restraint of Congress in yielding to him. Far better that planes and tanks and guns are being made available in an ever-swelling stream for our armies and those of our Allies than that we should be tearing ourselves asunder at home by labor strife.

As to agriculture and little business, the fact is that the metropolitan point of view reflected by some editors and commentators, does not seem to comprehend that the destruction of free enterprise on the farm and in the little shop is creating an American proletariat. Even in New York City, hundreds of thousands of men are still unemployed because Little Business is being driven out of civilian industry and is not yet being utilized in the war effort. Congress, representing all the people and all the states, as it does, understands the situation much more clearly than the intellectuals on the national scene with whom economic theory is often more potent than hard fact.

Patronage? Here again we find the motives and purposes of Congress misrepresented and assailed. For every act and thought of a legislator the meanest and most selfish motives are alleged, particularly in the field of appointments to public office. Yet the fact is that Congress has voluntarily surrendered most of its power over the payroll. Confirmation of Army and Navy officers, for example, has for years been the purest formality.

For more than half a century the selection of postmasters was frankly regarded as a function of the partisan political machine. Every President customarily chose his political manager as Postmaster General. Mr. Roosevelt, like his predecessors, did that very thing, yet it was while Jim Farley was Postmaster General, in 1938, that Congress extended the Civil Service law to the appointment of postmasters. The Rampseck bill brought a new army of federal office holders under civil service. All this is forgotten, however, when the critics come to the defense of a bureau against the Congress.

In such a case the bureau chief is absolved from all thefrailties of human nature—he has no relatives, no friends, no favorites. He becomes an official of chilled steel with no thought except for the public welfare, but if a Congressman finds that the power of a bureau is being improvidently exercised in his district and ventures to correct the situation then he must be pictured as a party hack whose only aim "is to debase the public service."

Holding back nothing from the war effort, sometimes even taking the initiative, the Congress has cooperated fully with the President. It has given the war leaders everything they have asked and has repeatedly urged them to broaden their vision and hasten their action.

Mindful of the many difficult problems arising from our disturbed economy, the Congress has cooperated also on the domestic scene, with surprisingly little personal or partisan bickering. Of course, it has not been perfect. It is not made up of supermen. It has its weaknesses and its failings, but I do not hesitate to say that no Congress in history has worked more diligently and more continuously than this. Furthermore, I assert that the observers who have been Washington newspaper men know that to be the case.

More important, however, is the fact that Congress represents the public. It is only to the members of Congress that the individual citizen may appeal for hearing. To the heads of the new agencies, a tremendous responsibility has been given to organize production for war. The Congress has sustained them and it will continue to sustain them. But Congress has an additional duty to perform, to listen to the innumerable pleas of the people back home, who are patriotically willing to make every necessary sacrifice to win the war, but who are entitled to know that no unnecessary sacrifices are demanded of them by the avoidable mistakes of central authority.

The rubber turmoil is a case in point. The request by members of Congress for facts before national gas rationing is ordered is concerned least of all with the protection of constituents from the mere inconvenience of limited gasoline. It should not require too much imagination for any one to realize that a great industry is in peril, unemployment threatened and a great source of state and federal revenue placed in danger if the consumption of gasoline should be unnecessarily decreased, but intelligent writers, failing to grasp the whole problem, have unintelligently characterized the Congressional demand for facts as a selfish unwillingness to share sacrifice for the war.

These members of Congress are your people. They are chosen by you and they speak for you. If they are less able or industrious than they ought to be, change them. You can change them, for they must go to you for their commissions. But don't let anybody undermine your faith in the Congress as an institution, for only the Congress of the United States stands between the people of the country and an all-powerful central government.

State lines disappeared long since in business, and national economic power was concentrated in New York. To break that hold upon the economic life of the nation, we turned to Washington and we substituted government power for private economic power. Congress has tried to keep that power in check. Most executive officers likewise have wanted to keep it responsive to the people. In and out of government, our people still believe in popular government, but the central power was never stronger in America than it is today.

Without the Congress, or with a Congress which because of ill-timed and ill-considered attacks such as now being made upon it, shall become a weak and timid appendix to bureaucracy, we stand in danger here of the complete loss to central authority of the economic and political power which is the very heart of democracy.