As the 112th Congress prepares to go on recess, its record pales in comparison to what the 74th Congress achieved in the 1930s.
For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away… Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent. – Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936
A number of recent articles have pointed out that by most measures, the 112th Congress is not merely the most unpopular Congress in history; it is also the least productive. As both the New York Times and the Washington Post have pointed out of late, this Congress would much rather engage in political posturing and ideological brinkmanship than in passing laws that address the current economic crisis.
What a contrast the 112th Congress represents when its record is placed against the 74th, the Congress that was in session at the close of FDR’s first term. It was the 74th Congress that was largely responsible for what historians call the Second New Deal. This included the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which provided the funding needed to establish the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that would provide millions of Americans with skilled jobs building the nation’s economic infrastructure; the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, which encouraged farmers to preserve one of our nation’s most precious resources, our topsoil, in the midst of one of the worst droughts in history; the Rural Electrification Act, which provided jobs to thousands and “wired” the country by bringing the benefits of electric power to millions of rural Americans; the Public Utility Act, which was designed to reduce the cost of electric power by regulating the utility industry and forcing the break-up of large-scale power monopolies; the National Labor Relations Act, which enshrined the right of workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining and established the National Labor Relations Board, which helps us settle labor disputes to this day; and finally, the Social Security Act, which gave us not only Social Security but also unemployment insurance.
What many Americans may not be aware of is the long-term impact that these congressional acts have had on future generations. As I pointed out last week, the drought we are experiencing today would no doubt be much worse, and may have even resulted in the rise of a new Dust Bowl, had Congress and the government not moved so aggressively in the 1930s to reduce soil erosion and plant millions of trees. The jobs provided by the WPA helped preserve the critical skills of our workforce and vastly expanded the infrastructure needed to grow the U.S. economy. When the Rural Electrification Act was passed, roughly 90 percent of all the farms in the United States were without power; by the end of the New Deal that number was cut to 10 percent. The passage of the National Labor Relations Act had a profound impact on the level of union membership and wages in the years to come and helped establish the post-war middle class. And it boggles the mind to think of where we might be today, in the midst of the current economic crisis, had we not had Social Security or unemployment insurance. It is also important to remember that many of these acts were initiated by members of Congress in response to the crisis the country faced in the 1930s and that each of these laws received significant support from members of both political parties.
As we approach the 77th anniversary of the passage of the Social Security Act on August 14, perhaps instead of going on recess, the members of Congress should call themselves back into session. With the economy sputtering and millions of Americans still suffering the agony of unemployment, why not take a chance and pass President Obama’s jobs bill, or at the very least establish the long-term funding needed to rebuild and expand our nation’s crumbling economic infrastructure?
After all, more than three-quarters of a century ago while running for office in the midst of a similar crisis, Franklin Roosevelt was bold enough to recognize that in the face of such an economic calamity the country was ready to try “bold, persistent experimentation.” That it was perfectly acceptable to “take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all try something” for the “millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are in easy reach.”
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.
Congress image via Shutterstock.com.