As the world media zeros in on Donald Trump’s failure to pass a single significant piece of legislation during his first 100 days in office, we should remember that although Franklin D. Roosevelt deserves a great deal of credit for the remarkable record he set during his first 100 days, he did not do it alone. The U.S. Congress also played an important part in initiating, crafting, and passing the 15 major bills that were enacted during the emergency legislative session that FDR called into being on March 5, 1933.
The casual observer might attribute FDR’s success to the fact that he was a Democratic president with solid Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and wonder why President Trump has not achieved the same success with a Senate and House that are both under Republican control. But the ideological makeup of the two major parties was far less monolithic during the New Deal era than what we have witnessed in recent decades. Some of FDR’s strongest supporters were liberal Republicans, while perhaps his strongest opposition came from conservative southern Democrats. In terms of ideological diversity, Congress was in many respects far healthier and much more representative of the American people as a whole than the obstructionist and nearly dysfunctional institution that we face today.
The fact that the two parties represented a broader spectrum of the political landscape also rendered the political debates in Washington—and in the rest of the country—as not so much a contest between Republicans versus Democrats as between conservative versus liberal ideas. This is not to say that partisan politics had disappeared, or that FDR and the Democratic and Republican Party leadership did not lampoon each other during the campaign season. But it is interesting to note that FDR usually focused his attention on what he called “these Republican leaders,” as opposed to the party as a whole. We should remember that a good many of FDR’s initial political appointees were in fact Republicans, including Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace (who would switch to the Democratic Party in advance of his becoming Vice President in 1941).
With Congress composed of two parties with considerable overlap between conservatives and liberals, the act of legislating was a far less partisan affair that it is today. It was this reality—more than the fact that FDR held a Democratic majority in both houses—that made it possible for his administration to move so quickly and decisively in its efforts to alleviate the social and economic misery brought on by the Great Depression. Moreover, some of the most critical legislation that was passed during FDR’s first 100 days emanated not from the White House, but from Capitol Hill. The all-important Glass-Steagall Act, for example—which created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and separated commercial from investment banking until Congress foolishly did away with the latter provision in 1999—largely came about through the efforts of Democratic Senator Carter Glass of Virginia and Democratic Representative Henry Stegall of Alabama. The launch of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s first public utility, which provided jobs, inexpensive electricity, and flood control to vast stretches of the poverty-stricken South, came about in large part through the efforts of Nebraska Republican Senator George W. Norris.
A second and equally important factor that contributed to FDR’s success was the shared faith in government that FDR inspired among the millions of Democrats and Republicans who supported his election in 1932—and among his supporters in Congress. Firmly steeped in the belief that “human welfare is the first and final task of government,” and cognizant of the dire need for socioeconomic reform in the wake of the worst economic crisis in America’s history, Congress, under FDR’s leadership, did what it was supposed to do: act.
As a result of this shared faith, over the course of FDR’s first 100 days, America’s legislators pushed forward a host of programs designed to try to make capitalism work for the average American. These included such lesser-known but noteworthy provisions as the creation of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC). The HOLC, a federal loan institution, would go on to refinance roughly 20 percent of all the urban mortgages in the United States in a mere 18 months, revolutionizing standard home loan practices in the process by introducing the 30-year amortized mortgage. There was also the passage of the Truth in Securities Act in 1933, which demanded transparency in the sale of stocks and other securities, and pointed the way toward the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission a year later.
The success of these and other important pieces of legislation passed during the initial months of FDR’s first term in office helped restore the American people’s faith in democracy and in the free market system at a time when much of the rest of the world was moving toward authoritarianism. Although today’s social and economic problems may not be as serious as those that America faced in the early 1930s—thanks in part to the social safety net established during the Roosevelt era—leaders in Washington must recognize that loss of faith in the government’s ability to govern responsibly poses a serious threat to our democracy. This is particularly important given what we see happening in Russia, Turkey, and other parts of Europe today.
Given the incompetence, lack of experience, and self-absorption that has characterized the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, it should perhaps come as no surprise that he has managed to accomplish so little during his first few months in office. But Congress must also share some of the blame. Here, the Republican Party leadership bears a special responsibility, as it has been their embrace of the conservative right’s decades-long strategy to discredit government—highlighted by their absolute refusal to compromise with the Democrats or President Obama, even on such measures as the modest jobs program he tried to pass in 2011—that is largely responsible for the dismal reputation that “Washington” has earned. Frustrated, the American people seem more and more inclined—in an eerie echo of the 1930s—to embrace demagogic leaders like Trump who attribute many of America’s woes to scapegoats and offer simple solutions to complex problems.
In the face of the massive inequalities that existed in the America of the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt once observed:
Democracy can thrive only when it enlists the devotion of those whom Lincoln called the common people. Democracy can hold that devotion only when it adequately respects their dignity by so ordering society as to assure to the masses of men and women reasonable security and hope for themselves and for their children.
It was to achieve these goals that FDR and Congress launched the famous first 100 days. If we are restore the American people’s faith in the institutions of democracy, the two political parties are going to have to learn that political leadership requires not only compromise, but also a belief in the ability of government to solve problems. How else can they possibly expect to earn the respect of the American people?