• U.S.

THE CABINET: Billions for Building

13 minute read

(See front cover)

¶ More bathtubs in Arab, Ala. and more

open plumbing in Beech Grove, Ind.

¶ A new home for Virgin Islands lepers;

new nuts & bolts for the Alaska Railroad.

¶ Waterworks for Spearfish, S. Dak. and

a sewer system for Poulsbo, Wash.

¶ A fresh coat of paint for Washington’s

Howard University and a new roof for

the post office shops in Washington.

These and a hundred similar projects President Roosevelt approved last week to launch the greatest public works program ever seen in U. S. history. Definitely sanctioned was the first spending under the National Recovery Act as a means of providing new jobs. For this purpose Congress had authorized the President to borrow $3,300,000.000. It was the President’s intention to use this sum down to the last cent, if need be, to help boost the U. S. to higher economic ground.

$115,513,610 Starter. But President Roosevelt was not stepping out on a wild spending spree, as his careful and cautious start last week indicated. Eighty cents out of every Federal dollar spent was meant for wages and the President was determined to make each dollar count in reducing breadlines and taking families off public charity. The first batch of projects approved called for a total outlay of $115,513,610 of which $64,561,542 was for purely Federal purposes. The largest single item was $38,000,000 to press forward with Boulder Dam. The balance was to be used mostly for renovation and repairs on Government plants. Another $50,000,000, as required by law, went for roads in national parks and forests and on Indian reservations. Twenty-five municipalities, none larger than Montgomery, Ala. (pop. 66,000) got $952,068 for waterworks and sewer systems. Of this sum 30% was an out & out gift to each town and the balance was a loan which the Government expected to be repaid. It was estimated that this expenditure of $115,513,610 would supply 21,517 men with work for one year.

Though the President had full responsibility for this monster program and final approval of each construction job rested with him, its actual direction fell to his Secretary of the Interior, short, thin-thatched, bespectacled Harold Loy Ickes. Last fortnight President Roosevelt ‘made Secretary Ickes Administrator of Public Works, put him in complete command of that phase of the National Recovery Act.

Ickes Week. During his first week on the job as Public Works Administrator, Secretary Ickes:

¶ Reached his office every morning by 8 o’clock or before.

¶ Worked there three nights until after 11 o’clock.

¶ Missed his milk-&-sandwich luncheon at his desk four times. ¶ Divided the U. S. into ten public works districts, preparatory to having the President appoint a regional administrator in each.

¶ Appointed Henry Matson Waite, one-time city manager of Dayton (Ohio), to be Deputy Administrator of Public Works. Engineer Waite served as a colonel with the A. E. F. railroads. He just finished building Cincinnati’s $40,000,000 Union Terminal. He will constitute Mr. Ickes’ brain trust on “the high price of putty and the low price of sand.” ¶ Sifted and sorted 1,300 projects submitted by cities and States. Federal agencies also stacked his desks with work proposals totalling $500,000,000. From outside sources construction ideas poured into his office at the rate of 400 telegrams per day.

After he had weeded and culled the construction list for hours and days, Secretary Ickes carried it to the White House. ”Still too big!” declared the President, so together they weeded and culled some more. To get on last week’s list a project had to: 1) benefit a community permanently and socially; 2) be ready to start immediately; 3) be finished within one year; 4) save the Federal Treasury from recurring expenses for upkeep and repair.

Million by October. Only when all these conditions were met did President Roosevelt approve and Secretary Ickes proudly declare: “This distribution is the first in the program of giving men work so that 1,000,000 may be employed by October 1!”

Already set aside toward providing that employment was $400,000,000 for new highways. Last week New York was the first State to get its share ($22,000,000) upon approval of its road building map. Also earmarked was $238,000,000 for new naval construction. On July 26 the Navy will open bids for two aircraft carriers, two cruisers, 15 destroyers and two submarines on which $46,000,000 will be spent this year. City after city throughout the U. S. whipped a public building program of its own into shape for submission to Washington.

“No Inside Track!” Secretary Ickes was besieged by Senators & Representatives sniffing about for “pork” for their States and districts. Contractors trod on one another’s toes to get into the Interior Department building and press their claims. “Fixers” flitted hither & yon in an effort to obtain this or that job for “clients.” Weeks ago Maryland’s Governor Ritchie officially assigned a man to Washington to see that his State got all that was coming to it in the way of public works money. So thick became the press in his office that Secretary Ickes was last week moved to exclaim:

“There’s no inside track to a public works contract! Since the enactment of the law there has sprung up in Washington a corps of self-styled ‘experts,’ ‘agents’ and ‘advisers’ who are attempting to get money from contractors in exchange for alleged inside information and influence. . . . They can deliver no such thing. I advise contractors to give the Government the benefit of low bids, made possible by not wasting their money on such ‘specialists.’ Contracts will be awarded to those able to do the best jobs for the least money in an honest way.”

Graft? The Department of the Interior has never quite lived down the bad name Albert Bacon Fall gave it as a result of the oil scandals a decade ago. When honest Harold Ickes took office, he promised the country he would not be “the black sheep” of the Cabinet. Yet, like everyone else, he knows perfectly well that three billion Federal dollars cannot be poured out of the Treasury without some of it spilling over improperly. Day & night he reiterates his determination to keep graft out of his Public Works Administration. He can trust himself and his immediate aides, for dishonesty at the top is a rare exception in national government. But what he and Washington fear are stealing and crockery down the line among the hordes of minor officials far removed from his office. To catch such greedy sinners he has organized a Bureau of Investigation under Louis Russell Glavis whose job it will be to choke graft in its tracks wherever found. Emergence. When Harold Ickes went to Washington on March 4 the general public marveled at his name, wondered who he was. Today, after four months, he has emerged as one of President Roosevelt’s closest and most trusted advisers. “My forebears lived in the foothills of the Alleghenies and there I learned to love flowers and trees,” is the way he generally begins his own biography. When he was 16 he left Pennsylvania for Chicago where he worked his way through the University of Chicago, got a job as a newshawk on the Daily News. He quit the Daily News to return to the University for a law course, came out and set up a small practice in the Loop. His onetime partner was Donald Randall Richberg, longtime attorney for railroad labor and now counsel to General Hugh Johnson’s Industrial Recovery Administration in Washington. “Mrs. Ickes’ Husband.” In 1911 Harold Ickes married Anna Wilmarth Thompson who had divorced Professor James Westfall Thompson. By her first marriage she had two children, Anna and Wilmarth, and by her second two more, Raymond and Robert. Mrs. Ickes had money from her father who was in the gas light fixture business. The family built a house on a six-acre lot in Winnetka and named it “Thorncroft.” In the backyard Mr. Ickes who did not have to practice his profession too hard began growing dahlias. Their development into prize-winning strains became a passion with him matched only by his interest in stamp collecting. Because his wife, tall, grey-haired and not as severe as she looks in her photographs, was the active, successful member of the family, he was long known around Winnetka as “Mrs. Ickes’ husband.” In 1928 she re-signed as a trustee of the University of Illinois, was elected as a Republican to the State Legislature. There she is now serving her third term as one of three representatives from an enormous district which encircles Cook County from Glencoe on the north to Blue Island on the south. As a Chicago lawyer Harold Ickes was early attracted to reform politics. He backed Charles E. Merriam for Mayor—and lost. He backed Theodore Roosevelt for the Presidency in 1912. He backed Charles Evans Hughes in 1916 and James Middleton Cox in 1920. He backed Hiram Johnson for the Presidency in 1924. In 1928 he voted vainly for Al Smith. Nominally a Republican, he liked to call himself a “lone wolf” in politics. In 1932 for the first time, Lone Wolf Ickes picked a winning candidate in Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Ickeses for years have had a small summer place at Coolidge, McKinley County, 20 miles from Gallup, N. Mex. There Mrs. Ickes goes to study the Navajos and Pueblos who consider her their good friend. Her husband on his visits likewise came to know Indians fairly well. On the basis of that knowledge Senator Hiram Johnson last winter recommended Mr. Ickes to the President-elect as a man who would make a good Commissioner of Indian Affairs. At their first meeting Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Ickes discovered that they spoke the same political and economic language. Mr. Ickes’ appointment to the Interior portfolio quickly followed. Public Business. In Washington Secretary Ickes, aged 59, is now a bachelor, Mrs. Ickes spending the summer in New Mexico. He has rented an old house in Georgetown but to date has spent so little time in it that he has not seen all its rooms. No golfer, he takes his fun on Sunday afternoon motor trips. At the Interior Department he works, generally in his shirt sleeves, at one end of a large rectangular room with brown panelled walls decorated with buffalo heads. His callers all flock in at once and wait their turn at the other end while he conducts public business publicly. While a visitor is talking, he squirms in his chair, shuffles papers, breaks in with quick, pointed questions. When the office door is shut and he settles down to dictate, not even another Cabinet member can get in to see him. He dictates a daily letter to Mrs. Ickes, scribbles a few personal lines at the end. His humor is dry and unsmiling. When he and a colleague got lost in the new Department of Commerce building, he told a passing newshawk: “Please wire Mr. Hoover to tell us how to get out of his building.” When President Roosevelt summoned his Cabinet to the cruiser Indianapolis in choppy Chesapeake Bay, Secretary Ickes, a wretched sailor, announced: “I’ll die for my President but I’m damned if I’ll get seasick for him.”

Though he never held a big public job before in his life Secretary Ickes in his calm, informal, dogged way makes a surprisingly good Cabinet executive. With a broad streak of the Puritan in him he overworks himself and his staff.

Final Punch? Secretary Ickes is really, personally interested in Indians and national parks. Early in his term he tried to grapple the oil problem by shutting producers up in a room and keeping them there until they made terms among themselves. Last week President Roosevelt made him responsible for the enforcement of the executive order banning interstate shipment of “hot oil”.

But these and other official duties pale beside Secretary Ickes’ interest in public works. Though others are dubious, he is convinced that national recovery will turn on the building program started last week; that the wise expenditure of $3,300,000,000 will supply the final punch to knock out the Depression.

For two years after the crash, President Hoover pressed for public works as a prime unemployment relief measure. After spending hundreds of millions he suddenly dropped it as a failure, warned the country that it could not squander itself into prosperity. His critics claimed that if he had spent billions instead of millions he might have turned the tide.

Last year Reconstruction Finance Corp. was given $1,500,000,000 to lend to States & cities for self-liquidating projects. Due to red tape and conservatism, it had, up to its last monthly report, thus disbursed less than $27.000,000. Its biggest advances were toward the $62.000,000 San Francisco Bay Bridge for which ground was broken last fortnight and toward Southern California’s $40,000,000 Metropolitan Water District on which work was commenced two months ago. R. F. C.’s fizzling efforts have now been taken over by the Public Works Administration.

Britain long ago tried public works for relief, stopped them as a costly failure. Last week when the U. S. delegation to the London Conference tried to woo Britain back to such a program on an international basis, Walter Runciman of the Board of Trade firmly declared: “This method of dealing with the problem is unduly expensive and an experiment we are not going to repeat. . . . We have come to the conclusion that schemes of this kind are most unremunerative.”

For weeks the Administration has been split on the wisdom of pressing ahead with the U. S. public works program. One group, led by Budget Director Douglas, argued thus: “Natural recovery has started. There is no sense in piling up a large and unnecessary debt for projects that aren’t really needed. Inflation has so boosted costs that $3,300,000,000 will build much less than it would two months ago and hence a reduced effect from such spending. Most States & cities do not really relish the idea of going into debt for 70% of a project just to get a 30% Federal grant.”

The more radical Brain Trusters pressed the President with this counterargument: “The upturn is largely due to anticipation of heavy Federal spendings on public works. If the program is now curtailed the psychological props will be pulled out from under recovery. Industrial production is already outrunning wages. By spending $3,300,000,000 quickly and widely the Government will boost the public’s consuming power, help it to overtake production.”

Last week President Roosevelt resolved this controversy in favor of the Brain Trust with his announcement that he was ready to proceed with the full $3,300,000,000 program. But there were important limitations. The U. S. would not splurge on new public buildings; probably not more than six new post offices would be erected throughout the land. States & cities with hopelessly unbalanced budgets could expect neither gifts nor loans for public works. While self-liquidation was not a prerequisite for each project, every dollar spent must represent sound capital investment and make the U. S. a better, more comfortable land.

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