For his entire adult life, Walter F. Brown dutifully climbed the career ladder in Toledo, Ohio, building a law firm, running businesses, and branching out into Republican politics at the state and local level. In 1920, he even ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate, only to lose in the GOP primary. It was a comfortable, fully successful life, but unremarkable in the sense that an untold number of men like Walter F. Brown lived in an untold number of American towns like Toledo.
Just when it seemed as if his political ambitions had reached their limit, Brown was put in a position to enjoy many of the perks of elected federal office without having to actually win election. As he moved up in the world, Brown enjoyed an ever-closer proximity to power, counting as allies Ohio Senators Mark Hanna and Warren G. Harding. And it was that latter association in 1921 that led to Brown becoming the first and only private citizen in American history to sit on a congressional committee—an occurrence made all the more remarkable because he was appointed to the committee, the Joint Committee on the Reorganization of the Executive Branch of the Government, by his friend and now President Warren Harding. That the President was able to appoint a private citizen to a congressional committee was unprecedented. But once he claimed his seat, Brown’s committee colleagues, in yet another first in congressional history, elected him chairman.
Ironically, the decision by the joint committee to elect Brown chairman, followed by Congress’s refusal to rein in his power, threatened to undercut the very purpose of the joint committee—to exercise Congress’s oversight responsibility over the White House and its departments. By giving Brown exclusive control over the reorganization process, his congressional colleagues on the joint committee had given the executive branch the freedom to try to design its own future.
The warning signs of a joint committee in trouble appeared early on. After a handful of administrative meetings, Brown took full control of the joint committee and effectively shut out America’s elected legislators from the reorganization process. Congress wanted to move quickly and had reserved office space for Brown in the Capitol campus, but Brown never moved his operation out of a room set aside for the joint committee in the aptly named Bureau of Efficiency, a separate government office which sat directly across the street from the White House.
After conferring privately with Harding’s cabinet secretaries (who were loath to give up any of their jurisdiction for fear of losing power in the administration) Brown, who took control of the joint committee in May 1921, promised to have an outline for a reworked federal architecture to the President by late summer.
Brown kept his work painstakingly secret. Behind closed doors his anticipated reforms promised to place all bureaus with similar missions under the same agency—the government had multiple cartography offices in multiple departments, for instance. The press suspected Brown wanted to merge the Army and Navy under one roof, and word circulated that he was also considering creating a new Department on Public Welfare. But by September 1921, he still had not delivered his plan to Harding, and the Baltimore Sun described his work as little more than “hazy generalizations” and “rumors.”
After the holidays, in January 1922, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that Brown’s reorganization investigation had mostly “collapsed.” Afraid of losing power in the reorganization, Harding’s cabinet secretaries generally refused to cooperate with Brown and frustrations grew so bad that by mid-January there was talk on the Hill of shutting down the joint committee altogether.
What’s remarkable is that Brown was able to work more or less by himself for as long as he had. From the start he exerted dictatorial control. But by 1922, the full joint committee hadn’t met for months, and the stalled investigation eventually gave way to finger pointing. The White House blamed Congress; Brown’s supporters blamed some of Harding’s cabinet secretaries; and Harding tried to stay above the fray. Somehow Brown avoided becoming the target of this criticism, and on January 22, he submitted his “preliminary” proposal not to Congress but to Harding.
Brown’s plan hadn’t even gone to the Hill and already it faced resistance from the six other members of the joint committee. His blunders were obvious to anyone who cared to look. The Baltimore Sun reminded its readers that he had “entirely ignored the other members” of the joint committee; that he had not convened the joint committee during his investigation; and that he never asked the joint committee to “look at the suggestions he himself framed.” Congress was in the dark, “entirely unacquainted with the nature of the report,” the Sun continued. Passing a bill of such magnitude would be hard on a good day. But without even the faintest support in Congress, Brown’s plan faced an almost insurmountable climb.
By December, Brown—described by the Baltimore Sun as the “chairman of the reorganization commission that does not reorganize”—had still not delivered his report to the other members of the joint committee. Adding to the confusion, conflicting stories in the press described it as both “drifting upon the rocks” and making “appreciable progress.”
When the joint committee finally saw Brown’s report in February 1923, the President took responsibility for the delay, but the House and Senate slow walked their consideration. Before the joint committee could regroup to debate Brown’s plan, Harding died. Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s successor, supported the reform effort in spirit but was unsure about Brown’s recommendations. And with Harding gone, the holdover cabinet secretaries moved to protect their turf. Although the Baltimore Sun called Brown’s plan “drastic and far-reaching, and is on its face, a real and vital move in the direction of Governmental economy and efficiency,” critics in the House began to speak up against it.
It wasn’t until January 7, 1924—three years after Congress created the joint committee—that Brown and the other members of the panel held their first official hearing on the plan Brown developed in secret. The hearings lasted for four months, and the joint committee heard from all but one cabinet secretary. Smaller bureau heads and people from outside interest groups also testified. But confidence that the hearings would yield workable legislation remained low. “Regrettably small progress can be shown, as the result of nearly three years’ work, for the campaign to reorganize the Federal Government on a basis approximating business efficiency. Dissensions, bureaucratic jealousies, traditions and precedents which have a stubborn way of holding their ground, are so strong that the prospect of adequate legislation is almost hopeless,” the Baltimore Sun surmised.
After the hearings, the joint committee turned Brown’s plan into actual legislation and reported its draft (H.R. 9629) to the House and Senate on June 3, 1924. Since Brown wasn’t a Member of Congress, he was unable to put his name on the bill, but the joint committee’s recommendations had the full approval of its four Republican members (the two Democrats on the joint committee dissented on a handful of particulars). The report laid out a seven-step re-organization plan:
In January 1925, as the 68th Congress wound down, House leaders cleared the bill for debate on the floor. “The measure will be a test of party loyalty on the part of the Republicans and of the power of the Executive to command [a] following from hitherto recalcitrant representatives,” the Boston Daily Globe predicted. Calling it “the last word in the work of the Brown reorganization committee,” the Globe expected it to flounder in the House. “While there has been much favorable discussion of the Government reorganization scheme since its inception, Congress, jealous of its powers, has watched the proposal with increasing alarm.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the joint committee bill never went to the floor during that Congress—or in any Congress for that matter. On March 3, 1925, Republican Carl Mapes of Michigan, who sponsored the measure in the House, gave a long address complaining that it had been “impossible during this session of Congress to get consideration of the bill.” Despite Mapes’ hope that the joint committee bill would be taken up early in the next Congress, it was never voted on. In the summer of 1925, the New York Times cut to the quick in its analysis of the joint committee’s efforts. “It cannot be said that the reorganization scheme as worked by the committee headed by Walter F. Brown of Toledo was considered well designed.”
As chairman, Brown had flown higher as a private citizen than most duly elected Members and Senators who served on Capitol Hill but never led a committee. But like Icarus, the figure from Greek mythology who ignored warnings, flew too close to the sun, and plunged back to Earth, Brown’s chairmanship ended with a muffled thud. Tasked with developing a restructuring plan to make the government more efficient, the ambitious Brown began what turned out to be a lonely crusade and committed a nearly unrecoverable error by freezing out the members of the joint committee from their own investigation. Nearly three years later when he delivered a rough outline for a new administrative structure, Congress was in no mood to simply rubber stamp recommendations of the President’s “representative.”
And yet, Brown’s proposals took flight in later years to a degree that may have surprised his contemporaries. In the early 1920s, the government already had organizations like the Veterans Bureau and the Bureau of the Budget to monitor government services but they were narrowly focused and tied to larger federal departments. Today, however, the U.S. government has a Department of Education, a Department of Health and Human Services, and a Department of Veterans Affairs. An Office of Management and Budget exists under the President independent of the Treasury. And even though Brown’s recommendation to merge the Army and Navy didn’t make the joint committee’s final legislation, a singular Department of Defense now houses America’s armed forces.
Brown may have been somewhat ahead of his time on certain matters, but the act of legislating is rooted in tradition and procedure, and it requires building a broad base of support. For an institution empowered by the Constitution with vital oversight duties, Congress inexplicably let Brown work alongside the White House. If that wasn’t enough, the joint committee then never built support for Brown’s reorganization in either house of Congress. For a committee dedicated to improving governmental efficiency, it worked in perhaps the least efficient way possible.
Sources: Hearings before the Joint Committee on the Reorganization of the Administrative Branch of the Government, Reorganization of Executive Departments, Part 1, 68th Cong., 1st sess. (1924); Joint Committee on Reorganization, Reorganization of the Executive Departments, 68th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 937 (1924); Congressional Record, House, 68th Cong., 2nd sess. (3 March 1925): 5457; Congressional Record, House, 68th Cong., 2nd sess. (3 March 1925): 5461; Atlanta Constitution, 18 and 22 January 1922, 13 December 1922, 3 January 1924; Baltimore Sun, 11, 12, 13, and 25 May 1921, 14 and 29 June 1921, 7 and 8 September 1921, 20, 21 and 23 January 1922, 3 May 1922, 16 September 1922, 8 November 1922, 8, 15, and 16 December 1922, 17 February 1923, 22 August 1923, 15 September 1923, 10 October 1923, 8 and 29 January 1924; Boston Daily Globe, 14 September 1923, 13 and 27 October 1923, 11 January 1925; Chicago Daily Tribune, 14 July 1921, 1 August 1921; Christian Science Monitor, 23 December 1923; Los Angeles Times, 14 June 1921, 16 February 1923; New York Times, 14 July 1921, 22 January 1922, 29 March 1922, 16 February 1923, 15 June 1923, 24 January 1924, 6 January 1925, 8 July 1925; New York Tribune, 20 and 21 January 1922; Washington Post, 14 June 1921, 16 December 1922, 17 February 1923, 2 March 1923, 10 November 1923, 8 January 1924; Peri Arnold, Making the Managerial Presidency: Comprehensive Reorganization Planning, 1905–1996, 2nd ed. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998); Stephen W. Stathis, Landmark Legislation, 1774–2012, 2nd ed. (Los Angeles: CQ Press, 2014); U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “About VA: History,” accessed 2 April 2018, https://www.va.gov/about_va/vahistory.asp.Follow @USHouseHistory