The following is an excellent excerpt from the book “”YOUNG BOB” LA FOLLETTE: A Biography of Robert M. La Follette, Jr. 1895-1953” by Patrick J. Maney from Chapter 6 on page 82 titled “Fighting the Depression” and I quote: “By the time the lame-duck session of Congress opened, [‘Young Bob’] La Follette was in an aggressive mood, ready to demand bold government action and ready to attack the administration on all fronts. On 9 December he opened fire on the administration by introducing into the Senate a resolution that at first glance seemed harmless enough. It stated, “The relief of human suffering. . . should take precedence over the interests of wealthy income-tax payers.” A remark made by President [Herbert] Hoover to a reporter the day before had prompted La Follette to offer the resolution. Hoover had said in essence that unnecessary federal relief measures would place too great a burden on taxpayers. At no time, however, had he said anything about “wealthy” taxpayers as La Follette implied. Nevertheless, Hoover blundered into the trap and directed his Senate supporters to block the loaded resolution, which they obediently did. He thus placed himself and his supporters in, as one observer described it, “the incredible position of seeming to object to feeding the hungry and clothing the needy lest the funds required for those worthy purposes be forced from the pockets of the nation’s small and relatively rich taxpaying class, already the favorites of much Republican legislative solicitude.”
During the session La Follette emerged as an outspoken proponent of federal relief to the unemployed. The administration and its congressional spokesmen, however, staunchly opposed relief and offered a variety of arguments against it. They argued primarily that existing agencies, like the Red Cross, local community chests, and city and state welfare departments, were already providing adequate relief. La Follette effectively countered by disclosing the pessimistic replies to his questionnaire. Opponents of relief also argued that federal aid would erode states’ rights. La Follette dismissed that claim outright: “In that splitting of legal hairs and theories I am not the least bit interested.” The depression, he said, “was due to causes with which the municipalities and state governments had nothing to do.” “If any government entity is responsible, or has had any share of responsibility in producing this economic crisis, then surely it is the Federal government.” Thus, La Follette argued, the federal government must assume the responsibility for providing relief.
The most frequently heard objection to relief, however, was that it would amount to a dole and would be destructive of the recipients’ characters and initiative. “This cry of ‘dole’ is preposterous,’ answered La Follette. Speaking to those who thought relief would destroy character he demanded to know, “What do you think is happening to the character of the men, women, and children who are going hungry and cold in the cities during these winter months?” The word dole, he thought, could more “properly be used to characterize what the administration has done in the face of the suffering and distress throughout the nation. According to Webster, ‘to dole is to deal out in small portions; to deal out scantily or grudgingly.’” More important, La Follette found ample precedent in American history for federal relief. He cited dozens of cases, the earliest in 1827, in which Congress had appropriated funds to aid the victims of famines, floods, earthquakes, and fires, both at home and abroad. He reminded his colleagues that no senator had arisen to denounce the dole in 1919 when Congress appropriated $100 million to relieve the starving people of Europe; nor had anyone cried “dole” in 1928 when Congress spent $1.5 million on the victims of the Mississippi flood. If the government had always aided the victims of natural disasters, why, he asked, should it refuse to help the victims of an “economic catastrophe”?
In advocating relief, La Follette stood almost alone. Even among his liberal colleagues there was little support for it. [Senator George W.] Norris thought it imperative “to keep the manhood and womanhood of America upon a high standard, by not compelling the men and women of our country to become subjects of charity for food and clothing.” [Senator Robert F.] Wagner, an acknowledged champion of the unemployed, later admitted that “No one took a more determined stand than I against consigning those out of work to the humiliating experience of charitable relief.” In late 1931, Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York, already the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, announced his opposition to the dole. Instead of relief, most liberals supported public works, which they deemed more productive and less debilitating to character. La Follette, on the other hand, supported public works, but argued that it took too long to plan and to implement works projects. He pointed out that although in early 1930 Congress had appropriated $50 million for public construction, by September of that year, fewer than ten thousand had been given work on new projects. Thus, he argued, relief was needed to fill the time lag between the approval and the implementation of public works.
In addition to relief and public works, La Follette, in February 1931, offered the third part of his antidepression plan, asking for the creation of a national economic council. La Follette’s proposed council would have fifteen members, three from each sector of the economy: industry, finance, transportation, agriculture, and labor. The president, with the advice and consent of the Senate, would appoint the members from lists submitted by groups representing each economic sector. The council’s job would be to keep abreast of general economic and business conditions, to study economic problems, and to recommend solutions to submit an annual report to the president and Congress and to submit any other reports it deemed necessary. The Senate referred the bill to the committee on manufacturing and authorized La Follette, the chairman of the committee, to conduct hearings during the summer recess.
The Seventy-first Congress adjourned on 4 March 1931 without having taken much action to combat the depression. The Republican supporters of Hoover spent most of the session defending the president’s approach to the crisis. Democrats, with their eyes already fixed on the 1932 election, had spent their time blaming Hoover for the nation’s plight; but with the notable exception of men like Robert F. Wagner and David I. Walsh, the Democrats had offered few alternatives. As usual the progressives had been unorganized, each one, as La Follette’s mother observed, “playing a lone hand.” La Follette likened the Congress to Nero, “fiddling while Rome burns.”
La Follette feared that unless something was done the next Congress would be equally unproductive. The progressives, he thought, held the key. The 1930 elections had increased their strength in both houses, and if they could unite behind a concrete legislative program, they might force congress to act. But first it was necessary to organize them and get them to draw up such a program.
To that end he persuaded Senators Norris, Borah, Wheeler, Bronson Cutting of New Mexico, and Senator-elect Edward P. Costigan of Colorado to summon progressive leaders from throughout the country to a March meeting in Washington. The conference, La Follette told his sister, “was my idea and I had to overcome a lot of inertia and resistance among my colleagues to get it called.” On the eve of the conference, La Follette went on the radio to explain its purpose. “It is not. . . a political conference in the ordinary sense,” he said. “It is to be directed solely toward the formulation of a constructive legislative program to be presented and fought for at the next session of Congress.” That program, he stressed, “must be definite and specific for we cannot cope with tremendous economic problems with catchwords or with vague panaceas.”
On the morning of 11 March, nearly two hundred man and women gathered at Washington’s Carlton Hotel for the opening session of the conference. Among them were some of the best minds and most active leaders in the country: historians Charles and Mary Beard; sociologist Edward A. Ross; journalists Lincoln Steffens and Bruce Bliven; economists Stuart Chase, George Soule, and Leo Wolman; labor leaders Sidney Hillman and William Green; social workers Florence Kelley and Lillian Wald; insurgent farm leader Milo Reno; and many others. With Congress adjourned, the conference held the national spotlight for two days, and the press provided full coverage. The nation was looking desperately for leadership, the progressives had promised to provide it.
After introductory remarks by Senator Norris, whom the sponsors named chairman, the conference broke down into five committees, each to consider respectively the problems of agriculture, the tariff, representative government, public regulation of electric power, and unemployment and industrial stabilization. From the outset the conference lacked focus. The participants spent much of their time considering proposals that were only remotely connected with the immediate problems of the depression. For example, the discussion group on representative government considered congressional reform, abolition of the lame-duck session of Congress, and abolition of the Electoral College.
The session on unemployment and industrial stabilization, which La Follette chaired, came more to the point. But each of the scheduled speakers prescribed his own personal antidote to the depression. George Soule and Leo Wolman favored some sort of centralized economic planing. Father John A. Ryan, chairman of the National Catholic Welfare Council, called for a vast expansion of public works. And the president of the AFL, William Green, stressed the importance of a five-day workweek.
On the second and final day, Norris introduced a note of pessimism. As long as Hoover remained president, he said, there was little chance of Congress enacting a substantial program. “What we do need in order to bring prosperity and happiness to the common individual is another Roosevelt in the White House,” he concluded with obvious reference to New York’s governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The remark brought extended applause and sent reporters scurrying for the telephones. But it probably also put a damper on the proceedings. Norris was saying in essence that whatever the results of the conference and whatever the progressives would do in the months ahead, the prospects of success were dim without an ally in the White House.
The conference ended ahead of schedule. Because so many people had left town before it was over, the sponsors called off the final session. Before leaving, the participants had agreed on a series of vague resolutions. The five committees, however, promised to continue their search for a concrete program for presentation to the next session of Congress.
Public response to the conference was mixed. La Follette, recalling the difficulty he had in persuading his colleagues to call it in the first place, was “rather proud of the results,” though he admitted that “only the next few months will reveal whether the committees appointed to draft legislation will actually produce constructive and effective measures.” Others were less impressed. “The chief significance of the conference,” wrote journalist David Lawrence, “was its lack of significance.” “It was,” he added, “neither radical nor conservative. It followed the philosophy of pussy-footing which has wrecked many a conference of middle-of-the-roaders.” The Washington Post said that “the nucleus of a mighty revolution was in their grasp,” but the progressives came up with “an assortment of illogical and warmed-over proposals” instead of a revolutionary program. The Review of Reviews castigated the participants for showing “little evidence of having renovated their thinking machinery for at least thirty years.” Professor John Dewey, chairman of the League for Independent Political Action, addressed an angry letter to the sponsors of the conference. “What,” he asked, “has paralyzed progressive Senators into acquiesence in the plan of exploiting interests to reduce the American people to a state of industrial feudalism and serfdom?”
Extreme complaints, like Dewey’s, were probably unfair. Perhaps, as George Norris thought, people expected too much from the progressives. “We are. . So often expected to perform the impossible,” he wrote a constituent and added, “What the people do not see. . . is that we are not in control. We are. . . in a very small minority. We are plugging along, fighting an entrenched machine.” But by and large the critics were right. In the end the conference failed to achieve either progressive unity or a concrete antidepression program, its two main purposes. After the March meeting the sponsoring senators moved off in different directors. Columnists Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen observed about the progressives: “Individually they are the most righteous and forward-looking men in public office in the capital. . . . Collectively they have been without plan or purpose, unorganized and ineffectual.”
Despite the absence of progressive unity, La Follette was prepared to press ahead, alone if necessary. In April he stepped up his attacks on Hoover. “His calloused indifference got under my skin,” La Follette told his mother after issuing a particularly stinging denunciation. He added, “I suppose people will think I have an obsession on Hoover but it does seem as though someone should keep after him and no one else in Washington appears to feel as keenly as I do about the shameful manner in which he has neglected his responsibilities in this economic crisis.””
THE LA FOLLETTE NAME IS PROBABLY ONE OF THE BEST-KNOWN IN WISCONSIN, AS WELL AS IN THE NATION AND HOW REPUBLICAN BOB LA FOLLETTE LEFT THE REPUBLICAN PARTY TO START A PROGRESSIVE PARTY BUT NEVER QUITE MADE IT. IF PRESIDENT HERBERT HOOVER HAD ANY GOOD IDEAS IN HIS ADMINISTRATION, HE PROBABLY GOT SOME OF HIS IDEAS FROM SENATOR BOB LA FOLLETTE, JR BUT PRESIDENT HOOVER NEVER GOT A CHANCE TO FOLLOW THEM AS HE WAS DEFEATED FOR A SECOND TERM BY GOV FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT, WHO DID FOLLOW THROUGH ON SOME OF ROBERT M. LA FOLLETTE’S IDEAS. THE PROGRESSIVE IDEA STILL LIVES ON TODAY IN A GREAT MAGAZINE PUBLISHED IN IOWA “THE PROGRESSIVE POPULIST,” WHICH I SUBSCRIBE TO, WHICH HAS A NUMBER OF GREAT AUTHORS WITH TERRIFIC IDEAS, WHICH IS WHAT IT’S GOING TO TAKE TO GET THE 99 PERCENT AGAIN BACK IN CONTROL OF CONGRESS AND AWAY FROM THE RICHEST ONE PERCENT, WHO ARE MOSTLY BILLIONAIRES, WHO NOW CONTROL IT THROUGH LARGE SUMS OF CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS TO GET THEIR WAY. WE STILL HAVE A “FIGHTING BOB FEST” HERE IN WISCONSIN EVERY YEAR, WHICH HONORS HIS FATHER’S (ROBERT M. LA FOLLETTE, SR) MEMORIES AT BARABOO, WISCONSIN USUALLY IN SEPTEMBER.
LaVern Isely, Overtaxed Independent Middle Class Taxpayer and Public Citizen and AARP Members