A majority of Congress would like to drop Mr. Roosevelt’s tax program, gather up its heat-prostrated families and go home. It doesn’t quite dare do it. The likelihood is that a tax measure will be passed sometime in August, and that the measure will be much more useful than the one originally proposed by the President. Instead of stopping with trivial increases on incomes of more than a million, there is hope that Congress will undertake the upward revision of the whole income surtax schedule, perhaps beginning at the $4,000-a-year level. This is what Senator La Follette has fought for since the beginning of the depression. The left-wingers in Congress seem to have found unexpected allies among the extreme reactionaries. The latter fear currency inflation above all else, and think that if heavy taxes can be imposed at the present session, the propertied classes of the country can be mobilized a year from now to demand the end of what the reactionaries call government extravagance. By this they mean a cut in relief payments to the unemployed.
The left-wingers have exploded the silly pretense of radicalism surrounding Mr. Roosevelt’s tax message. Administration supporters in Congress tried to spread the notion that, by restricting tax increases to incomes of more than a million, and estates of more than ten millions, Mr. Roosevelt was taking the side of the common citizen against the rich. Left-wingers pointed out that a family struggling along on a wretched $999,999.99 a year could hardly be counted as part of the proletariat. Since 75 percent of American families have incomes of less than $2,500 a year, even if surtax increases begin at $4,000 a year, the vast majority of citizens will still not be touched.
The defeat last week of the death-sentence clause in the utilities bill was one of the most damaging in Mr. Roosevelt’s career. It is a pity that, in embarking on a finish fight with Congress, he did not pick a more substantial issue. Since the power industry is a monopoly, Mr. Roosevelt might have asked for its complete nationalization without seriously straining his capitalist beliefs. The very narrowest issue on which it would have been worth risking his prestige would have been federal regulation of the kind now exercised by the I.C.C. over the railroads. The death-sentence-clause issue was too weak to arouse mass support.
The country remembers that the elder Roosevelt a generation ago, forced the breaking up of the oil and meat trusts, and that the severed portions thereafter continued to cooperate with great precision. Mr. Roosevelt was never in a position to say to the country: “Support me against Congress, and I will give you more plentiful, cheaper electricity.” He could not promise any immediate, tangible benefits whatever. If Samuel Insull had still been frolicking in Greece, the death-sentence clause might have been made the basis for a sort of “Hang-the-Kaiser” political stunt from which Mr. Roosevelt could have personally profited.
There is some reason to believe that the primary target of the utility managements has been the T.V.A. rather than the utilities bill. Under the brilliant direction of Mr. David E. Lilienthal, the T.V.A.’s power program has become popular among Tennessee Valley inhabitants. Even reactionaries have been fired by talk of the American Ruhr, and wait impatiently for the day when the Valley will become the center of heavy industry, and land values will shoot upwards. This local enthusiasm for the T.V.A. has alarmed the utility industry. If the T.V.A. is a success, why should not government ownership and operation be adopted elsewhere in the country? According to reports, the utility managements decided that a wholesale attack upon the T.V.A. presented more difficulties than an attack upon Mr. Roosevelt’s power policies in general. It is no accident that the leader of the attack upon the death-sentence clause should have been Representative George Huddleston of Alabama, whose political friends are also the friends of the Alabama Power Company. Under cover of the death-sentence-clause fight, the administration’s measure containing amendments to the T.V.A. Act has been torn to bits in the House Military Affairs Committee.
It seems doubtful whether Mr. Roosevelt can regain the mastery over Congress he once had. He flung his full strength into his fight against the death-sentence clause, and was publicly beaten. His reputation as a political wizard, with mysterious powers, has vanished. Half a dozen representatives spoke against him m the House, and no thunderbolts struck them down. But the chief wound to Mr. Roosevelt’s authority came, I think, from the methods he used in his fight. Persistently he forced the administration’s leaders to resort to sharp parliamentary tricks. His emissaries, Thomas G. Corcoran, Charles O. West and Emil Hurja, pursued the House members without mercy. None of the administration's acts was reprehensible; certainly Mr. Corcoran’s explosive ultimatum to Representative Brewster about the Passamaquoddy project was abundantly justified. But it is always imprudent for a President to use such tactics towards his own party unless he is certain he can win. The result of Mr. Roosevelt’s efforts is that the feeling against him among the rank and file of the House is now extraordinarily hostile.
Congress has no more pressing duty, it seems to me, than to investigate the utility managements’ lobby. Little can be expected from the inquiry begun by the House Rules Committee; the Senate should order its own inquiry without delay. The lowest estimate that I have heard of the amount spent by the utilities during the death-sentence fight is a million dollars. Other estimates run to ten times that sum. It is reported that at one time the utilities had more than a hundred lobbyists on their staff, among them four prominent ex-members of the House. Telegrams solicited, and in most cases paid for, by the utilities, showered down on the House members like a yellow blizzard. A handful of representatives, comparing noets, found that among them they had received thirty thousand telegrams in a single day. In their haste, the lobbyists sometimes made mistakes. Representative G. R. Withrow, a Wisconsin progressive, was astonished to receive within a few Hours more than a hundred telegrams from Auburn, New York, fifteen hundred miles from his home district.
A new bonus army is now encamped in Washington. Up to the present time, however, the most amiable relations have been maintained with the administration. Many of the veterans have been living for the last two years in relief camps. After a few days, the relief authorities here usually succeed in shipping them back to their starting points. There are very few men, veterans or otherwise, who can resist the offer of three meals a day.
This article originally ran in the July 17, 1935, issue of the magazine.