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."
FDR, stunned by the attacks, issued an extraordinary statement from his retreat at Warm Springs, Georgia. "I have no inclination to be a dictator," he told reporters. "I have none of the qualifications which would make me a successful dictator." Congress was skeptical. The court-packing scheme was rejected in August 1937, while the reorganization plan died eight months later.
Historian William Leuchtenburg says it was the worst rebuff from Congress that Roosevelt suffered in 12 years as president. Scarcely two years after his triumph in the 1936 election, Roosevelt's political capital was substantially diminished. The Democrats lost six Senate seats and 71 House seats in the 1938 midterm elections.
This was a historic moment, signaling a return to normalcy after five years of crisis. "The New Deal has been halted," said the New York Times' Arthur Krock after the elections. "The average taxpayers of the country -- the group which, for want of a better name, is called the `middle class' -- have restored the country's two-party system."
(Alasdair Roberts is the Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School. His book "America's First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder After the Panic of 1937" will be published by Cornell University Press in April. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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