• U.S.

THE NATION: God Forbid . . . Such Disunity

8 minute read

This week the nation was climbing over another of the terrible humps on its path through the war. The Congress was on its way toward enacting a bill giving the President specific powers to control farm prices and wages—another weapon against the threat of inflation.

Last week had been a time of peril, with moments such as that when the House of Representatives last year so knife-narrowly voted not to disband the drafted Army (203-202). The danger was not yet past. But the surpassing danger had been avoided—that the Congress would take action which would set group against group, labor against agriculture, Congress against President, in struggles bitter enough to disrupt the Republic.

The drama enacted was as big as the U.S. and as small as the motives of little men. Its chronology was simple and its meaning plain. On Sept. 7 President Roosevelt asked the Congress for these new powers over farm prices and wages, and set Oct. 1 as the deadline. He stipulated that a fair farm price was 100% of “parity,” * and no more.

The Forces Line Up. To Washington came scores of men from the Big Four farm lobbies at the order of their leaders: Ed O’Neal of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Albert Goss of the National Grange, H. E. Babcock of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, Charles Holman of the National Cooperative Milk Producers Federation. “This is war,” desperately wired Babcock to his local chapters, and he did not mean World War II.

The Big Four lobbies mainly represent the well-to-do big commercial farmers, the top 10% who sell 50% of all U.S. farm products on the markets. As always, they utterly dominate the men Columnist Ray Clapper called “their slaves”—the 150

Senators and Representatives who fear the millions of “farm voters.” To farm-bloc members, the Gallup poll meant nothing, though it showed the nation 71% for the President’s bill, only 11% against. Well each Congressman knows that one enemy in his district is more potent than ten friends. The lobby had three powerful leaders in the House: Georgia’s Paul Brown, Alabama’s Henry B. Steagall, South Carolina’s Hampton P. Fulmer—Southern politicians all, who have passed their Democratic primaries, and trust the public’s memory will fade inside another two years.

Against this combination the Great Compromiser, Speaker Sam Rayburn, was helpless. In three riotous days of debate in the House, the farm bloc hammered the Administration to its knees, as the lobbyists sat smugly, warily watching in the galleries, calling for floods of wires from back home in the district of any Representative who weakened, or thought of the war. The bill passed, 205-to-172, with provisions pegging parity at what amounted to 112%, and raising the floor under prices (by Government crop loans) from 85% to 90% of parity.

Man Against Bloc. But in the Senate there was a man with the courage of conviction, a man from a heavily agricultural State, and worse, a man running for reelection this year, Prentiss Marsh Brown of Michigan, 53, a Democrat. Senator Brown set himself in the path of the farm-bloc juggernaut. The 250-odd farm lobbyists had the votes—but Senator Brown had logic and virtue on his side.

The question was not whether the President had wisely used such powers in the past, or would wisely use them in the future; the question was not that he had often politically used one bloc against another; nor that he had consistently favored the labor bloc at the expense of the rest of the U.S. The question, as Prentiss Brown saw it, was simply that the Commander in Chief had asked Congress in time of war to give him by specific legislation powers he could otherwise use without specific Congressional consent. (Under the Second War Powers Act, the President may directly take any action he deems necessary to prevent shortages; his request was not dictatorial.)

The Logic. The farm bloc, at 100% parity, had by law the right to receive as high a relative price for their products as they received in a favorable period 30 years ago. Now they wanted a 12% bonus above this; and wanted 90% parity prices guaranteed them by Government loans. If there were a loss, the Government, meaning the U.S. people, would take it; if there were a profit, the top-drawer farmers would absorb it.

The farm bloc’s only fairly valid argument was that parity does not take into account the rising cost of farm labor (although the farmer’s greatest present cost is not so much high wages as no labor at all—see p. 22). They wanted this cost added in (including the value of labor by members of the farmer’s family), so that the farmer would be cushioned throughout the war against economic loss. The moral weakness of this argument was that four years ago the farm bloc opposed figuring labor costs as part of parity—doing so at that time would have lowered, not raised, the parity figure.

Republicans, Too. On the crucial day the Senate farm-bloc leaders, New Mexico’s sober Carl Hatch and Oklahoma’s greenback-inflationist, Elmer Thomas, were content. Observers were fairly well convinced that the farm bloc would have its way in the Senate, too, when up rose Prentiss Brown in the Senate. Said he:

“Mr. President, in my judgment the Congress of the United States and the President are headed toward a bitter conflict. … I am fearful we are going to have disunity. . . . God forbid that there should be such disunity. . . .

“I was proud of the Republican minority in the House of Representatives and in the Senate when, a few days ago, they announced a policy with respect to this measure, which was to go along and to give the Executive the authority for which he asked. I wish that it might have been followed in the House (see p. 21).

“But the responsibility is not the responsibility primarily of the minority party in either the Senate or the House. … [It] is upon the majority party.

“. . . If, upon this great issue before the American people we shall by our action here force a head-on collision between the executive and legislative powers . . . we shall have weakened America.”

Turning to the farm bloc, Brown asked: “Who is charged with the leadership of this country today? … We should not turn the leadership of the legislative branch over to these gentlemen [the farm lobby]. They are not hired by the American people. They are hired by the people whose interest they serve.”

Brown reminded the Senate that the farm lobby had argued: “We want 110% of parity; but if you will control wages, all we want is parity.” But they wanted wage control plus 112% of parity.

The Press Hits. Prentiss Brown’s was a tremendous performance, powerfully and logically carried out. He was aided in the debate by a longtime farm-bloc member, now seceded, Wyoming’s Joseph O’Mahoney. The two carried the day. Next day the public press descended on the farm bloc and the farm lobby like a million tons of bricks. Columnist Clapper used the most powerful language:

“For the first time since I have been reporting in Washington I believe we are in danger of going over to dictatorship. . . . We are seeing before our eyes this week the breakdown of legislative Government. Congress is not legislating. It is carrying out the orders of a handful of farm lobbyists. … To see this thing . . . is an appalling event which sends a shudder through your frame if you want to keep this a democracy. Time and again I have said that dictatorships rise up out of the decayed ruins of parliamentary Government. . . . Congress, you are asking for it, and it will be a sorry day for the United States of America if you get it.”

After Prentiss Brown’s performance, Majority Leader Alben Barkley of Kentucky recessed the Senate, coolly calculating that public and private pressures would make themselves felt over the weekend. By Monday morning the farm bloc was scrabbling around for a compromise. Brown stood firm. Barkley let the debate drag. The lobbyists met that night—this time with a smaller bloc of the faithful. The Administration now had the votes. The immediate peril was over.

Out of the entire bitter fight, observers could hope only that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Administration policy henceforth would not drive bloc away from bloc, in disunities contrived for political effect, but would move steadily toward unity; that, having been burned by the fire which its own fumbling handling of inflation had set, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Administration would henceforth move firmly and swiftly.

-Parity is an abstraction that the Department of Agriculture computes every month on the basis of information it gets from 20,000 reporters: 1) the current prices of every major farm crop; 2) the costs of 174 things the farmer buys —food, clothing, furnishings, seed, feed, machinery, fertilizer. The figures are averaged by States, then nationally, then compared with figures that show what farmers got for their produce and paid out for necessities between Aug. 1, 1909 and July 31, 1914, a period of lush agricultural prosperity. The object of parity: to give farmers the same purchasing power now that they had in that period. The reason: when the New Deal started in 1933 to try to get fair prices for farmers, a yardstick of “fairness” was needed and lobbyists picked a favorable yardstick.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com