In our age of voluminous email traffic and cluttered inboxes, it’s easy to overlook certain correspondence and even misplace particular documents. Things get lost in the shuffle, we say. It happens.
But as the White House demonstrated in 1920, it’s been happening for longer than we might imagine, and well before the advent of email. That year, according to the Washington Post, aides to Democratic President Woodrow Wilson lost a bill sent over by the Republican-controlled Congress creating the Joint Committee on the Reorganization of the Administrative Branch of the Government. The Post reported that the joint committee bill, after being approved by both houses of Congress, got mixed up “among the many papers going to the White House and was completely overlooked.”
This might have been a minor inconvenience were it not for a little-known provision in Article I, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution that governs how bills become law. Traditionally, bills passed by Congress go into effect in one of two ways: either the President signs them, or, following a presidential veto, Congress overrides that veto with a two-thirds vote in both chambers. But the Constitution provides a third path to enactment: inaction. If the legislative branch is in session and the President fails to either sign or veto a piece of legislation within a 10-day window, it automatically becomes law.
Instances in which bills become law because of presidential neglect are pretty rare, but it happened in 1920 with the joint committee bill. Once the White House realized the legislation was missing it was too late. By the time Wilson’s aides began a fevered scramble to find the joint committee bill, the President’s 10-day window had expired and it became law automatically.
Despite its bumbled treatment by the White House, the joint committee bill started out with more graceful ambitions to reform a federal bureaucracy many thought had grown unwieldy. Over the previous 50 years, the Populist and Progressive movements had overturned old political expectations; international conflicts had transformed U.S. foreign policy; and changes to the economy were making America more urban and industrial. As these developments rippled through American society, legislators and agency heads created a host of new federal responsibilities, redefining the relationship most citizens had with their government.
As a result, House Republican Charles F. Reavis of Nebraska and Republican Senator Reed Smoot of Utah set out to downsize what they felt had become a bloated federal architecture. In April that year, they introduced a measure creating the joint committee, hoping it would become a place where Members could reorganize, consolidate, and improve government functions.
Over the next two months, passage of the Smoot–Reavis bill was threatened by an innovative new budget bill that split much of the joint committee’s oversight power between a new watchdog agency and the Comptroller General. President Wilson ended up vetoing the budget bill, however, and when the joint committee legislation came back up for consideration at the end of the year, Smoot–Reavis passed the House without amendment on December 14, 1920.
When it went to the President for his signature, however, it simply disappeared. Ten days later the Joint Committee bill became law. For its part, the White House dodged the issue, hinting to the Post that Wilson merely intended for the act to go into effect without his signature.
Regardless of Wilson’s intent, it certainly wasn’t the first or last time legislation became law because of presidential inaction. Ulysses S. Grant did it. Grover Cleveland did it. And in 1938 Franklin D. Roosevelt would do it with what he considered to be a watered-down tax bill, just to name three examples.
One week after Smoot–Reavis became law, Wilson wrote to Congress, hat in hand, asking for a new copy of the resolution. Federal statute required the President to register all laws with the Secretary of State, but because the White House didn’t have the original version Wilson needed another. “The resolution has in some way been misplaced or destroyed,” he finally admitted. “[M]ay I ask that a duplicate . . . be sent to me for that purpose?” Reavis, who managed the bill on the House Floor, had to answer a few questions but the Members eventually approved Wilson’s copy.
On the surface the procedural troubles of the joint committee bill might seem minor, but its passage set in motion a series of seemingly unprecedented events. Eventually, and in an act of extraordinary leeway, Congress allowed the President to appoint a private citizen—a non-Member named Walter F. Brown from Ohio—to the joint committee who served as both the President’s liaison and as the panel’s chairman.
Strange though it was, this is only the beginning of a rather curious history of the Joint committee on the Reorganization of the Administrative Branch of the Government.
Sources: Congressional Record, Senate, 66th Cong., 2nd & 3rd sess. (16 April 1920, 10 May 1920, 7 January 1921); Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 2nd & 3rd sess. (18 April 1920, 3 June 1920, 14 December 1920, 10 January 1921); House Committee on the Judiciary, Joint Committee on the Reorganization of the Departments, 66th Cong., 2nd sess. (11 May 1920), H. Rep. 959; Atlanta Constitution, May 2, 1920, January 1, 1921, May 28, 1938; Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1938; New York Times, June 6, 1920, May 28, 1938; New York Tribune, June 5, 1920; Washington Post, October 9, 1919, December 15, 1920, January 1, 1921; National Resources Committee, “Research—A National Resource,” H. Doc. 122, 76th Cong., 1st sess. (23 January 1939): 131ftnt.24; “A Veto Message,” Washington, D.C., 4 June 1920, in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson vol. 65, ed. Arthur S. Link (Princeton University Press, 1991): 362–63; Peri E. Arnold, Making the Managerial Presidency: Comprehensive Reorganization Planning, 1905–1996, 2nd. ed. (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1998): 57–58; Kendrick A. Clements, The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1992): 143, 157, 206; William E. Leuchtenburg, The Perils of Prosperity, 1914–1932, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order: 1877–1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967); “Presidential Vetoes: 1789 to present,” http://history.house.gov/Institution/Presidential-Vetoes/Presidential-Vetoes/.Follow @USHouseHistory