Tuesday, March 25, 2008

GEORGE W. NORRIS (1861-1944)

Norris is the paradigmatic Congressional nonpartisan, not only as to desirable qualities – of character, tactical sense, dedication, patience, persistence, readiness to forge ad hoc alliances and to compromise to keep them together, take support wherever it was to be found, and seize sudden opportunities – but as to accomplishments, as well.

Clipping the Speaker’s Wings

Norris, a lawyer and former judge from McCook, Nebraska, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1902 as a Republican, although philosophically he favored many of the policies of the Progressives quite popular in the Midwest. At the outset he was a dutiful party man. But soon he developed a strong aversion to the dictatorial power of the Speaker of the House, which was firmly in the hands of the Republicans. Under the House rules at the time, the Speaker, “Uncle Joe” Cannon of Illinois, appointed the standing committees and was ruler absolute of the Rules Committee, which determined which bills could make it to the floor. Norris, in accord with widespread popular discontent with the Speaker’s power, formed a group of Republican insurgents and forged an alliance with Champ Clark, leader of the House Democrats, in an avowed campaign to amend the House rules. However, each attempt to get a resolution of amendment to the floor died in the Rules Committee. What to do? Wait until the Democrats regained control of the House? Once in power, would they move to weaken their Speaker? Norris tucked the draft resolution in his pocket to await the day when opportunity would present itself for an end-run around the Committee.

On March 17, 1910, the House inadvertently handed the rebels an opening, which Norris promptly seized. The chairman of the Committee on Census interrupted debate that day to demand special privilege under the Constitution for consideration of a minor amendment to a Census bill (Article I, Section 2, mandates a census every 10-year term). Speaker Cannon put the question to the House as to whether special privilege should be honored, and the House approved. Shortly thereafter, Norris pulled out his frayed draft resolution and demanded privileged consideration of it under the Constitution (Article I, Section 5 provides that “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings”). The Republicans were aghast! The next day, after feverish overnight marshalling of the opposing forces, the Speaker, as expected, ruled the motion out of order. The Democrats appealed to the House, which, mindful of its action on the Census bill’s claim of Constitutional privilege, overruled him. The resolution, which the House then adopted, 191 to 156, in Norris’ words, ended “the long dynasty of the all-powerful Speaker.” It provided for a Rules Committee of ten members, six of the majority party and four of the minority party, to be elected by the House within ten days of the adoption of the resolution, the Speaker to be ineligible for membership.

But it was a resolution substituted in the midst of battle for Norris’s original proposal, which had provided for a creative method of appointing members of the Committee by representatives grouped by regions into which the country would be divided. When the Democrats rejected Norris’s plan, he reluctantly compromised to hold the alliance together. Later he wrote:
That night, I returned home triumphant in a decent fight, and disappointed that its fruits could not have been even greater. That is the struggle which people of a democracy face. Frequently they must compromise in order to achieve partial reform. If victory were full and complete, there would be no new political battlefields in due time. Progress and change are constant and eternal.

Though the reform of the Speaker’s powers was generally applauded, one critic commented that “on the face of things there appeared to be no change, except that a [Rules] committee controlled by the Speaker was now controlled by the Speaker’s closest friends.” But that same critic acknowledged that what had occurred had been more than “a revolt in name only and not in substance. A spirit of independence had effectively been displayed in the House, and wholesome respect had come to be felt for a militant minority within the ranks of a brutal majority.”

Whatever the motives of the Democrats in the revolt, those of the insurgent Republicans were pure. They had voted to break the dictatorial power of the Speaker over the House’s business; not one of them would agree to serve on the reconstructed Rules Committee.

Willful in World War I

In 1913 Norris entered the Senate, where he was to serve for the next thirty years. As noted above in LaFollette’s story, Norris was one of the six senators who opposed America’s entrance into the War in Europe in 1917. Indeed, it was he who orchestrated the successful filibuster against Wilson’s bill to arm our merchant ships against Germany’s U-boat menace, thus earning the President’s condemnation as one of the “willful men” involved in the filibuster.

Once the country entered the War, a storm of anger broke over the heads of the senators who had voted against the declaration. Norris, an embodied conscience, asked the Governor of Nebraska to call a special recall election to determine whether the voters wished him to continue to represent them. The Governor sensibly declined.
Norris then secured a hall in Lincoln and prepared to explain to his constituents his stance on the war. The theater was jammed – and silent – as Norris, a lone and lonely figure, came out on the stage (he had been unable to find anyone to introduce him!). “I have come home to tell you the truth”, he said. To his huge relief, the theater erupted in applause, and he went on to tell his people why he felt that intervention was not in the country’s best interest. The following year, 1918, they re-elected him to another term. Years later, in 1955, John F. Kennedy, then a young senator, headed his chapter on Norris in Profiles in Courage with the brave words with which he had opened his Lincoln speech.

Muscle Shoals and TVA

Norris’s outstanding physical monument is the Tennessee Valley Authority development that he sponsored in the 1930s and its massive dam on the Tennessee River named in his honor. However, his crucial role in the Tennessee Valley story began long before, in the 1920s, just after World War I, when he led the fight to save Muscle Shoals, later to be a key component of the TVA complex, from private exploitation.

Muscle Shoals was the metonymic sobriquet for unfinished plants and dams on the Tennessee River, just after it bends into Alabama, which had been intended for the production of nitrates for war ammunition. In 1921, Henry Ford, at the height of his popularity in the country, offered to purchase it from the Federal government. His terms called for the completion of the dams and plants by the government with Ford paying interest on the government’s cost of construction. His offer was greeted with widespread approval by public and press.

Congressional hearings disclosed that Ford intended to use only one plant to produce nitrates for fertilizer for farmers; all other plant and hydroelectric power would be used to produce aluminum, steel and carbide for his Model Ts. This disclosure did little at first to dampen public enthusiasm for the offer.

The offer duly came before the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, of which Norris, a Republican, albeit insurgent, was by right of seniority chairman. He, however, harbored a vision of Muscle Shoals quite opposed to Ford’s. He saw it as a government-owned and operated facility producing electricity for the area and fertilizer for its farmers, serving as a standard by which to measure costs and pricing of power produced by privately-owned utilities. Despite the overwhelming public support for Ford’s offer, Norris set out to defeat it. In his campaign, it must be said, he had powerful allies in the financial community of Wall Street, whom Ford conspicuously by-passed in financing his enterprises, and in the aluminum- and power-producing corporations who wished to sell to Ford rather than watch from the sidelines as he produced his own. The considerable influence of these allies was not at first powerful enough to sway Congress. Indeed, in 1924, despite strenuous efforts by Norris’s ally LaGuardia to defeat it, the House of Representatives approved Ford’s offer by a vote of 227-143. Norris, however, stalled a vote in the Senate. Eventually, the power of the industrial and financial opponents began to assert itself on the floor and in the pages of the Congressional Record. Little by little, public sentiment began to shift Norris’s way. Chemists had developed an easier and cheaper way to produce nitrate for fertilizer, which chilled somewhat the farmers’ enthusiasm for Ford. Norris’s stressing the preponderance of Ford’s proposed uses for his own purposes over those for people of the Valley began to register more insistently with the public. Powerful competitive bidders entered the lists: Union Carbide Company of New York, Associated Power Companies (South), and an associated group of individual investors, E.H. Hooker, W.W. Atterbury, and J.G. White, whose bids, given the maze of interlocking directorates of the day, were linked in a complex web of international interests with ties to British financial and Chilean nitrate organizations. Ultimately, public and press support for Ford’s offer faded to the point where, recognizing reality, he withdrew it in October 1924.

Now Norris brought out his proposal for continued government ownership of Muscle Shoals and for government-operation as well. He had become the leading political advocate for public production, transmission and distribution of hydroelectric power. In 1928, in a climate of public anger over private exploitation of the country’s natural resources fanned by the Teapot Dome scandal, Norris and his Congressional allies actually adopted a bill for government operation and distribution of hydroelectric power, only to have President Coolidge pocket veto it. In 1931, with the country now in the depths of the Great Depression, he shepherded a like bill through Congress, but President Hoover, unable to accept a government enterprise in competition with private industry, likewise vetoed it, again successfully.

However, the election of 1932 swept the Republicans from office and brought to Washington a Democratic administration with its own plan for a Tennessee Valley Authority that Norris not only welcomed, but sponsored and managed through the Senate. The House of Representatives duly approved it, and Norris realized his dream as FDR signed it into law, seemingly miraculously after a decade of struggle.

Bagging “Lame Ducks”

When drafting the Constitution in 1787, the Founding Fathers provided that Congress should meet each year on the first day of December “unless they should by law appoint a different day.” Congress, with an eye to the realities of travel in those days, provided that Congresses should convene every two years on the March 4th following the November election, and that that date every four years should mark the inauguration of the newly-elected or re-elected president and vice president.

In time, of course, the railroad, the steamboat, the automobile and the airplane succeeded the horse and carriage and sailboat as the favored means of long-distance travel, even as the country expanded West and South. By the dawn of the 20th Century, it had become clear to reformers – notably Norris – that the so-called “short session” of Congress, which ran from December 1st after a November election to March 4th of the following year, always included in both House and Senate an unhealthy number of individuals who either had not sought re-election, or, having run, had been defeated, but would not leave office until the March 4th following. So widespread was recognition of this political reality that these holdovers were familiarly referred to as “lame ducks”. It was equally clear to reformers that these “lame ducks” were temptingly susceptible to manipulation by those in position to give them employment or other favored treatment after their return to private life; that they might well approach their legislative tasks during the short session more concerned with their personal welfare than the good of the country. Accordingly, led by Norris, they drafted an amendment to the Constitution that would advance the date for convening new Congresses and inaugurating presidents from March 4th to the January 4th immediately following a November election.

From 1922, when Norris first introduced the amendment, the Senate approved it in successive Congresses; in successive congresses, despite its obvious merit, the House overwhelmingly defeated it. While Senators serving six-year terms apparently did not feel threatened by it, Representatives facing re-election campaigns every two years did.

Still Norris, ever patient and persistent, kept the issue alive, constantly preaching its merits to public and press. Eventually, House resistance eroded and on March 2, 1932 Congress as a whole approved it. Ratification by the requisite number of states followed promptly and the Twentieth Amendment, now dubbed the Norris Amendment in recognition of his leadership in the decade-long fight for approval, became effective on January 23, 1933.

Against Injunctions and “Yellow Dogs”

The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, an important milestone on organized labor’s progression to respectability under the law, was one of the easiest of Norris’s legislative victories. By 1932, public and Congressional sentiment had set strongly in labor’s behalf: the 1928 platforms of both the Republican and Democratic parties had called for such legislation.

The late 19th and early 20th Centuries saw the burgeoning of heavy industry in America and the consequent stirring of its labor force and its attempt to organize in unions. To these efforts industry widely responded by requiring prospective employees to sign pledges not to join any union but a company union, which labor quickly dubbed “yellow dog contracts”.

The period also saw creative corporate lawyers and sympathetic judges, using stratagems that would make today’s rightists blush, thwart labor at every turn. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which had declared any “combination (or) conspiracy in restraint of trade” illegal - aimed, of course, at the huge anti-competitive business and industrial trusts that had developed – was held to apply also to unions threatening strikes. The “yellow dog contract” was held to trump a union’s right to solicit any worker who had signed one. Patronage of a business (a restaurant in the case before the Court) was held to be “property” protected against picketing or boycott by the “due process” clause of the 14th Amendment – originally adopted to protect the newly-emancipated slaves’ right to protection of “life, liberty, or property.” The courts then issued injunctions against these vital union activities, which, if ignored, could and did lead to jailing for contempt. Swept aside in all this was the declaration in the Clayton Act of 1914 that unions were not conspiracies in restraint of trade.

In reaction to this judicial activism, Norris’s ally and friend, Senator Henrik Shipstead, a Farmer-Laborite from Minnesota, introduced a bill to amend the Clayton Act to restrict the definition of “property” to its common law meaning of tangible property. In extensive hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee it became clear to Norris, who was the chairman, that Shipstead’s approach was too weak, that a new and frontal attack on the problem was called for. Reluctantly scrapping his friend’s bill, he drafted one that took a fresh approach to legislation: it stated as “the public policy of the United States toward labor” that while a worker should be “free to decline to associate with his fellows” he must also be free to join with them to designate “representatives of his own choosing to negotiate the terms and conditions of his employment, and that he … be free from interference, restraint, or coercion of employers of labor (in exercising these rights) for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” The courts were then enjoined to act in consonance with that public policy. The bill also declared the “yellow dog contract” to be illegal and unenforceable. In effect, it prohibited the Federal courts from interfering on the side of employers in their disputes with unions.

LaGuardia introduced a counterpart bill in the House. After the customary process of amending and reconciling text in conference, both houses passed the bill and President Hoover signed the Norris-LaGuardia Act into law on March 30, 1932.

The Act was the most far-reaching protection of the rights of labor until the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 set forth a comprehensive labor law for the country.

Willing in World War II

Norris understood that the war that had broken out in Europe in 1939, a storm that had been gathering for some time, was of an entirely different order than the war that he had shunned in 1914; that Nazism and Fascism – totalitarianism – threatened the very life of freedom enjoyed by democratic peoples, to which Americans could not remain indifferent. Indeed, as early as 1938, outraged at Japanese military aggression in the Far East, he had called for a boycott of Japanese silk.

While he opposed establishment of the draft in 1940, he supported revision of the neutrality law to permit the Allies to buy American arms on a cash-and-carry basis. In 1941 he supported the Lend-Lease Act, which, among other things, enabled America to turn over to Britain destroyers desperately needed in their naval struggle against German U-boats. The man who, during World War I, had filibustered to death as too provocative Wilson’s bill to arm our merchant ships against a like menace, had come a long way. He did, however, criticize our wartime treatment of aliens and other suspect persons.

A Courageous Knight

Norris served continuously in Congress for forty years, until in 1942, when, running as an Independent, he was defeated by the Republican candidate. Despite his insurgency and the fact that he had mostly to play a lone hand, Nebraskans had never before withheld their support.

In most of those years, he was the ideal of what a lone philosophical nonpartisan can accomplish, and how to do it. He was beholden to no one but his conscience and his constituents, who defeated every attempt by the Republican organization to oust him in their primaries.

Nominally a Republican for most of his legislative career, he nevertheless attacked the power of the Republican Speaker of the House in 1910; he quietly supported the Progressive Party ticket of LaFollette and Wheeler in the 1924 presidential campaign (he was running himself for re-election!); in 1928, he openly condemned his party’s platform planks on agriculture and hydroelectric power and endorsed the Democrat Al Smith for president; he supported Roosevelt in 1932 and in the three presidential elections to follow. In the election of 1936 he formally broke with the Republican Party and ran successfully for re-election as an Independent, but at long last his independent candidacy in 1942 failed.

Norris’s patience, sincerity, willingness to take support where he found it, to form ad hoc alliances and compromise to hold them together, were qualities that enabled him to achieve his successes, these plus his skill as a parliamentarian and opportunist. In the main, though, Norris relied most heavily on persistence and education. Forced mostly to work alone, he realized that conviction was the best device for keeping his forces in line. He worked tirelessly for his measures, speaking effectively for them in Congress and out, writing articles in their favor, winning slowly to his side the press, the public, and finally his fellow members of Congress. The justice of his cause and his courage in its behalf seemed irresistible in the long run.

It was Norris’s achievements against formidable odds that led JFK in 1955 to devote a chapter to him in his Profiles in Courage. FDR, in his 1932 campaign, called him “the very perfect, gentle knight of American progressive ideals.”

To download a complete copy of A Modest Proposal, click here.

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