Jean Edward Smith: How F.D.R. Made the Presidency Matter





When President-elect Barack Obama takes office Tuesday he will be facing high expectations. Americans expect their presidents to hit the ground running, and the initial 100 days set the tone for a president’s first term.

That was not always the case. Until the adoption of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, presidents were not inaugurated until March 4. Congress often did not convene until the following December, and a president’s first message to Congress was usually delivered at that time. Even then a president was not expected to take the lead. His constitutional responsibility was to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and the public assumed that the legislative initiative rested with Congress.

There were two exceptions. Abraham Lincoln called the newly elected 37th Congress into special session in July 1861 to deal with the rebellion in the South. And in 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered the 73rd Congress to meet Thursday, March 9 — five days after he had taken the oath of office — to deal with the nation’s banking crisis. Roosevelt’s mythical 100 days, the gold standard by which all subsequent presidents have been measured, date not from the time he was sworn in but from the date Congress convened. Congress eventually adjourned in the early morning hours of July 16, 1933, exactly 100 days later.

While many Americans think Roosevelt had the entire New Deal in mind for the special session, he in fact initially assumed that Congress would deal only with the banking crisis and then adjourn. The president had closed the nation’s banks by executive order and, like Lincoln in the Civil War, needed legislative authority to confirm his action and reorganize the financial system.

When Congress met on March 9, F.D.R.’s Emergency Banking Act was introduced in the House with the ink still wet. There were no committee hearings, no debate, no amendments. The measure was whooped through with bipartisan support and no roll call. Most members had not read the bill, and took on faith what the leadership presented. Three hours later the bill passed the Senate (73-7), and an hour later Roosevelt added his signature. The entire legislative process, from the bill’s introduction in the House to the president’s signature, took less than six hours.

Now, with the legislative tide running so strongly in his favor, Roosevelt decided to hold Congress in Washington until the bulk of the New Deal could be enacted. And consummate politician that he was, Roosevelt feinted right before turning left.

The second measure he sent to Congress was an economy bill to reduce Federal expenditures across the board. Government salaries were slashed 15 percent, and veterans’ benefits scaled back. This was scarcely the financial stimulus the economy required, but it won the hearts of conservative legislators. “I’m for giving the president whatever he wants,” said Senator Arthur Capper, a Kansas Republican.

After consolidating his position, F.D.R. opened the New Deal floodgates. There was no preconceived order in which legislation was sent to Capitol Hill. As soon as a measure was ready, Roosevelt sent it forward — carefully preparing the ground beforehand with the Congressional leaders who would be responsible.

Roosevelt was not without a sense of humor. The third measure to go forward was a request to amend the Volstead Act to permit the sale of beer and wine. “I think this would be a good time for a beer,” the president told his aide Louis Howe. The 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, was not adopted until December 5, 1933, but Roosevelt’s proposal provided interim relief.

Bills to reorder the nation’s agriculture, housing and mortgage markets followed in short order. Acreage allotments, price supports and crop set-asides reshaped the face of American agriculture. Farm mortgages were refinanced and the Farm Credit Act provided operating funds at low interest rates. The urban housing market was rescued with the establishment of the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which purchased the mortgages of distressed home owners, provided money for taxes and repairs, and set repayment schedules over 30-year terms at 5 percent interest. The loan corporation assumed one-sixth of all home mortgages in the United States, and soon made home ownership a goal to which most Americans could aspire.

On March 21, Roosevelt asked Congress for $500 million for unemployment relief. Congress complied and the president appointed Harry Hopkins to administer the program, the first ever by the federal government.

Roosevelt was personally interested in preserving the environment and providing temporary employment for the nation’s youth. Legislation to establish the Civilian Conservation Corps was also introduced March 21, and shepherded by the president himself through both houses. It was signed into law 10 days later. Over the next six years 3 million young men were put to work reclaiming the country’s natural resources. The men lived in government camps, food and clothing were provided, the Army supervised the camps, and the men were required to send 80 percent of their pay back to their families.

Legislation to establish the Tennessee Valley Authority, providing cheap electric power to one of the most poverty stricken regions of the country, was introduced April 10 and became law five weeks later.

The excesses of Wall Street, blamed by many for the Depression, were reined in with the passage of the Truth in Securities Act on May 27. “If the country is to flourish,” said Roosevelt, “capital must be invested in enterprise. But those who seek to draw upon other people’s money must be wholly candid regarding the facts on which the investor’s judgment is asked.”

To make American farm products more affordable on the world market, F.D.R. took the United States off the gold standard, and Congress passed follow-up legislation nullifying the clauses in private contracts that required payment in gold.

The Glass-Steagall Act, one of the most far-reaching economic measures ever enacted, required banks to divest themselves of securities operations; gave the Federal Reserve Board the authority to set interest rates; and established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to guarantee individual bank deposits, assuring the average citizen that his money would be protected by the government.

The capstone of the 100 days was the passage by Congress of the National Industrial Recovery Act — an omnibus proposal governing the whole range of industrial recovery. The act authorized business to establish production codes controlling prices and output, guaranteed labor’s right to bargain collectively, and stipulated that industry codes should set minimum wages and maximum hours. It also provided $3.3 billion for public works (roughly $50 billion currently) as a fiscal stimulant.

The 100 days that Congress was in session in 1933 shattered all records for legislative activity. Roosevelt had sent 15 messages to Capitol Hill requesting action, and Congress had responded with 15 historic pieces of legislation.

More significantly, perhaps, the president had become the principal player in the legislative process, and the federal government had become the primary guarantor of the nation’s economy.

No president since has faced so desperate a financial situation, and none have enjoyed such mastery of the legislative process. President-elect Obama confronts a national crisis of significant proportions. The question is, can he can replicate the leadership style and the wisdom of Franklin Roosevelt?


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