In the spring of 1921, Republican Walter Folger Brown of Ohio, the chairman of Congress’s Joint Committee on the Reorganization of the Administrative Branch of the Government, began overhauling the size and shape of the federal bureaucracy. A graduate of Harvard Law School and a successful businessman in Toledo, Brown was an intensely private person with a knack for backroom politics. As the former chairman of the Republican Party’s Ohio state central committee, Brown had deep roots in the GOP. But he also had a progressive streak having supported Theodore Roosevelt’s unsuccessful run for President on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912. By 1920, Brown, like many of TR’s supporters, was back with the Republican mainstream but never lost interest in reform. On paper, he seemed like a natural choice to lead Congress’s efforts to overhaul the government: a discreet business leader with progressive credentials from the key state of Ohio.
A natural choice, that is, except for one detail: Brown was not a Member of Congress.
As far as the House Historian’s office can tell, Brown is the only non-Member ever to have served on an official congressional committee. When the joint committee elected him chairman, Brown also became the only private citizen to have ever chaired a congressional committee.
As extraordinary as that may have been, how Brown came to serve on the joint committee and what he did with his powers as chairman is perhaps even more shocking. In what appears to be yet another first in congressional history, Brown was appointed to the legislative panel not by Congress, but by the President of the United States, Republican Warren G. Harding. Despite the Constitution’s very clear language separating the legislative branch from the executive, Congress took the remarkable step of giving Harding the power to appoint his own inside man to the joint committee.
The joint committee came into existence more or less by accident after President Woodrow Wilson’s aides lost the bill creating it in 1920—per federal law, unsigned bills automatically became law after 10 days while Congress remains in session.
Simple happenstance may have ushered the joint committee into being, but the reform impulse that inspired it was a calculated attempt to overhaul how the government operated. To reform advocates, the joint committee seemed like a historic opportunity to streamline federal operations. It was long overdue, they said, arguing that the executive branch hadn’t been restructured since Alexander Hamilton first designed it more than 125 years earlier. The timing also seemed right: “public administration as a field of study” among American academics had come into its own, observed the historian Peri E. Arnold, and the Baltimore Sun wasn’t too far off in describing the joint committee’s work at the time as akin to a “scientific investigation.”
Congress had created the joint committee during a period of relative uncertainty in the nation’s history. America’s entry into World War I in 1917, for instance, accompanied a dramatic expansion in federal spending, accelerating an upward trend in growth over the previous half century. “The administrative branch is now a crazy quilt—a weird set of governmental patches, sewed on from time to time during the last 50 years or more, with not much thought as to where each should be sewed,” the Sun observed in 1921. The bloodshed of the Great War and the emergent global footprint of the United States also had a profound effect on the American psyche. With voters nervous about the future and unsure where the U.S. fit in this new interconnected world, Harding campaigned for President in 1920 on a platform of “normalcy” and evenhandedness—“a regular steady order of things,” he said. Harding won in a landslide. Voter backlash against the Wilson administration also gave Republicans in the House their largest majority on record. And in the Senate, the GOP majority grew by 20 seats.
The president, however, had promised more than just normalcy during the campaign. “One of Mr. Harding’s chief pledges,” the Sun’s editorial page reminded its readers, “was economy and the introduction of business methods in government.”
Since the turn of the 20th century, the Progressive Era had seemed like a kaleidoscope of theories on how politics and civil society should work. At every level of government and regardless of party affiliation, officials tinkered with ways to transform the relationship between the state and its citizens. But the tenuous progressive coalition that had upheld Wilson’s Democratic administration—programs to help farmers, to strengthen unions, and to regulate corporations, for instance—collapsed after years of political turmoil and global conflict. In 1920, when Republicans captured the Presidency and Congress, it was their turn to experiment.
The idea of running the government like a business was part and parcel of what one historian has called “the triumph of capitalism” in America during the second half of the 19th century. It had been an era of aggressive, unrelenting expansion. Railroads crisscrossed the continent. Wall Street followed the money to unprecedented power and influence. At its most extreme, this was Mark Twain’s “Gilded Age.” Standard Oil, the House of Morgan, U.S. Steel—immensely profitable and intricately structured corporations prospered in the decades following the Civil War. Alongside this affluence, however, corruption and economic inequality gradually threaded their way through the fabric of American society. A lucky few had become wealthy beyond imagination. Most did not. And in between the yawning gap separating the rich and the poor, a growing middle class asserted itself as the driver of America’s future. Federal regulators had begun to carefully temper the growing power of these corporate behemoths—busting some of the trusts in the process—but business had boomed and the country’s economic landscape was dotted with new professionals.
Harding and his allies in Congress looked to this new professional class as a model on how to run the government. The reform impulse had less to do with shrinking the size of the government and more to do with making the government more efficient. It was about grouping bureaus with similar missions under the same department. The joint committee itself had been born from the opinion “that while the business of the United States as a Government was probably the biggest business in the world, it was likewise the worst-managed business in the world,” said Republican C. Frank Reavis of Nebraska, the joint committee’s main supporter in the House. With momentum from the election Congress hoped to capitalize on this “managerial revolution.”
Walter Brown had sought to play his own small part in that revolution: back home in Ohio, he had helped run the Toledo Trust Company, the National Can Company, and the Cleveland Automatic Machine Company. But he struggled to parlay that experience into public service. Brown had waged an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1920, but he stayed active in Republican politics and had a close relationship with Harding. He had orchestrated the president’s bid for the GOP nomination at the Republican National Convention in 1920, and remained a close adviser. When Harding became President, he offered Brown the spot as Ambassador to Japan, but Brown turned down the appointment.
Within months, however, Brown was enjoying almost all the privileges of being in Congress without the hassle of having to win election. In the spring of 1921, Brown’s close associate, President Harding, asked Republicans in Congress to give the executive branch a voice on the joint committee. And Congress obliged by giving the President appointment power. Representative Reavis said it only made sense that the President should have his own eyes and ears in the investigation in order to stay “constantly in touch” with the departments Congress would be overhauling. Harding had told Utah Senator Reed Smoot privately ahead of time that he would appoint Brown, but Brown’s name was quickly leaked to the press. The Baltimore Sun responded to the news by calling Brown a problematic “outsider” whose loyalty to the President would likely hurt instead of help the joint committee’s reorganization agenda. Nevertheless, Congress approved the resolution granting the President a proxy on the joint committee in early May 1921 (S.J. Res. 30/ Pub. Res. No. 1). The bill also stipulated that the President’s appointee would be paid an annual salary equivalent to sitting members of Congress ($7,500 per year) and that Congress had to cover the costs out of its own budget. Harding formally named Brown his “personal representative” to Congress, to quote the Washington Post, a week later.
Some Democrats in the House vigorously protested the measure. “Who ever heard of a committee of the House and a committee of the Senate going to the President of the United States and asking him to appoint a clerk. . . . It is something unheard of in the history of legislation,” thundered future House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas. Another future Speaker, Joseph Byrns of Tennessee, pointed out the inherent folly of the Joint Committee on Reorganization seeing as how the government’s delightfully named Bureau of Efficiency—which Congress had created a few years earlier to find ways to save the government money—was already looking into the same issues. Thomas Sisson of Mississippi focused on the Constitutional ramifications. “If there is one thing that this Government should always be sure to guard against,” he said, “it is keeping absolutely separate the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the Government.” It was just a matter of time, Sisson predicted, before Presidents would ask to appoint their own people to the Appropriations Committee to “advise and counsel” on spending.
But Brown wasn’t just “a clerk,” as Garner described him. Nor did he just “advise and counsel.” Rather, at Harding’s request, the committee elected Brown chairman, and under his leadership, the joint committee became the Ohio businessman’s personal fiefdom.
Traditionally, official government publications like the Congressional Directory identify Members by their home states. The roster for the joint committee, for instance, included “Reed Smoot, Senator from Utah” and “C. Frank Reavis, Representative from Nebraska.”
The 1921 Congressional Directory dispelled any doubt about Brown’s unique constituency, listing him as “Walter F. Brown, representing the President.”
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 1st sess. (2 May 1921): 938–939, 941–942; Congressional Record, House, 67th Cong., 1st sess. (26 July 1921): 4318; Congressional Directory, 67th Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1921): 230; House Committee on the Judiciary, Appointment of a Representative of the Executive to Co-Operate with Joint Committee on Reorganization, 67th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 30 (28 April1921); Christian Science Monitor, 15 June 1921; The Sun (Baltimore), 17 March 1921, 19 March 1921, 21 March 1921, 24 March 1921, 18 April 1921, 11 May 1921, 23 February 1922; New York Times, 27 July 1921, 19 April 1921, 27 January 1961; Washington Post, 15 April 1921; Peri E. Arnold, Making the Managerial Presidency: Comprehensive Reorganization Planning, 1905–1996 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998); H.W. Brands, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865–1900 (New York: Doubleday, 2010); Ellis W. Hawley, “Brown, Walter Folger,” in American National Biography, vol. 3, ed. John Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Arthur S. Link, “What Happened to the Progressive Movement in the 1920s?,” The American Historical Review vol. 64, no. 4 (July, 1959): 833–851; Robert K. Murray, The Harding Era: Warren G. Harding and His Administration (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969); Robert K. Murray, The Politics of Normalcy: Governmental Theory and Practice in the Harding-Coolidge Era (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973); Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877–1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967); Senate Historical Office, “Party Divisions,” https://www.senate.gov/history/partydiv.htm.Follow @USHouseHistory