Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"FDR's `Dictatorship Plan': Echoes"

From Bloomberg's Echoes column:
In February 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt was beginning his fifth year as U.S. president. His first term had been grueling, as the administration improvised a response to the country's unprecedented "national emergency."

He had been assailed by critics for trampling on rights and creating an unmanageable sprawl of new federal agencies. But now, three months after an election that he took as vindication, the president's mood lightened. He told friends that he had earned some political capital, and he was going to spend it.

In January, Roosevelt had stunned Washington by announcing a sweeping plan to reorganize the executive branch. He wanted to create two new departments for social welfare and public works; merge all the existing independent regulatory agencies into the executive departments; weaken the General Accounting Office; abolish the Civil Service Commission; give himself the power to move bureaus among departments; and expand the White House staff.

This was a carefully calculated play for enhanced executive power. A team of specialists had worked for months on the scheme, huddled in a suite a few blocks from the White House. They were warned to say nothing about their work before the election. The plan hinged on the claim that the framers of the Constitution wanted "a single responsible Chief Executive" running the federal bureaucracy. For years, Roosevelt's supporters complained, presidential authority had been "nibbled away" by Congress.

For many Democrats on Capitol Hill, though, it was the foulest medicine that Roosevelt had ever asked them to swallow. And three weeks later, on Feb. 6, it got worse. Roosevelt asked Congress to approve a bill prepared in "deepest secrecy" by Justice Department lawyers. It would allow Roosevelt to expand the Supreme Court from nine to 15 justices, if the sitting ones refused to resign at age 70. This was a direct assault on an aging court that had repeatedly stymied New Deal polices during Roosevelt's first term.

Louis Brownlow, the University of Chicago-based adviser who spearheaded the reorganization plan, feared that it would provoke the "dictatorship school of critics." He was right. Opponents of the president, led by Frank Gannett’s National Committee to Uphold Constitutional Government and the Rev. Charles Coughlin, the radio priest, organized a broad campaign against the proposals. They called it a plan for "one-man rule" and "authoritarian government." Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd was one of many Democrats aghast at the president's attack on the constitutional order. Editorialists across the country railed against Roosevelt's "Dictatorship Plan."...MORE
Also at Echoes:
The Match King's Empire Collapses: Echoes