Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

The Waste Basket Committee

Rep. Lex Green of Florida/tiles/non-collection/7/7-9-Green-2008_295_10.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Representative Lex Green cut a dashing figure in the House. He ran for governor of Florida in 1944; after he lost, he resigned his seat in Congress early to join the Navy instead.
Representative Robert Alexis Green tended to stand out in a crowd. Blessed with thick dark hair, “black romantic eyes” and a “soaring barytone [sic] voice,” the newly-minted Florida Democrat flaunted a vibrant personal style, punctuated by a series of billowy, loudly-colored ties.

His bold attire betrayed an equally impertinent legislative style. For his maiden speech in the 69th Congress (1925–1927), “Lex” Green, as he was known, chose to take on his own party, arguing against an inheritance tax that would affect his aging Florida constituents. Green peppered his defense of the Sunshine State with lofty, lyrical descriptions of Florida’s agriculture (“the watermelon and strawberry transform the midnight dew into lucious [sic] red juice”) and its musical traditions, “played on the ukulele and hummed by bright-eyed Florida maidens underneath the sweet magnolia trees.” Eventually, the presiding officer cut him off and reporters wagged their fingers at Green for speaking out of turn—traditionally first-term Members kept their heads down and waited a while before making remarks on the floor. House Democratic leaders responded to his impudence by assigning him to the most “prosaic” of committees: the Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers. “The House, like the world, has a habit of treating its poets unkindly,” one reporter mused about Green’s seeming misfortune. But if anyone could take a joke, it was Green. And that sense of humor, as it were, would come in handy on the new committee.

Hatton W. Sumners/tiles/non-collection/7/7-9-hatton_summers_1934_office_PA2014_11_0025a.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Representatives knew a thing or two about handling years and years of records. Texas Rep. Hatton W. Sumners undertook the huge task of packing all his papers upon retirement in 1946.

Imposing Order

Established on February 16, 1889, the Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers was initially a small, ad hoc panel, which convened only when it was assigned work. A century before the emergence of digital records, whenever an executive department decided to clean house of accumulated excess paperwork, the head of that agency had to submit the document load along with a report to Congress describing what it contained and why it was no longer necessary. Because this responsibility fell under Congress’ oversight responsibilities, the Speaker of the House and the presiding officer of the Senate would appoint two Members (typically one from each party) from each chamber to sit on the joint committee to examine the paperwork slated for disposal. If the committee members agreed the paperwork was not important, the committee was ordered “to sell as waste paper, or otherwise dispose of such files of papers upon the best obtainable terms.”

Congress created the Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers amid a reform impulse to streamline a growing federal bureaucracy. By that point, the federal workforce had nearly doubled in four years. Between 1889 and 1934, the year Congress created the National Archives to manage the nation’s growing collection of federal records, the ranks of workers on Uncle Sam's payroll ballooned even further, from just under 27,000 employees to more than 673,000.

Dept. of Commerce Records/tiles/non-collection/7/7-9-truck_papers_1920_loc_3c25492u.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress The need for an Archive Building was aptly illustrated in this removal of valuable census records in 1922 from the Department of Commerce to a temporary wooden building constructed during the First World War.

The enlarged federal workforce was hardly an anomaly. Rapid industrialization, market growth, runaway inequality, and scientific innovation fueled calls for political, economic, and social reform in United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Progressives proposed a series of democratic reforms they believed would professionalize and regulate the government’s workforce. Certainly the swelling federal bureaucracy was creating mounds of paperwork Congress had to deal with, but the creation of the Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, with its painfully specific name, demonstrated a growing Progressive impulse for imposing order and expertise on the simplest task of throwing something away.

“The Waste Basket”

In its first two decades, the House appointed Members to the Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers no more than a half-dozen times. Over the years, the process for getting rid of excess government paperwork became institutionalized, and in the twentieth century committee members received appointments at the beginning of each Congress. In 1911, under new rules, it became a standing joint committee and House Members, rather than Senators, appear to have taken the lead on the committee’s business—in fact, Senators rarely served on the committee at all. Yet even as a standing committee it submitted reports to Congress erratically, primarily at the whim of the committee member who belonged to the House majority party—the de facto chairman, since chairs were never officially designated.

The sporadic nature of the committee seemed to veil it in secrecy. “No voter knows what executive papers were considered useless,” one reporter observed of the committee’s irregular activity in 1929. “There is not even assurance that any were elected to the wastebasket.”

Chairman Wason's Report/tiles/non-collection/7/7-9-wason_papers_report.xml Joint Select Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, Disposition of Useless Papers in the Executive Departments, 71st Cong., 3rd sess., H. Rept. 2124 (1930). Reports like this one from the joint select committee may not have appeared glamorous, but they led to the current archival practices throughout the executive branch.
For nearly a quarter century, the standing Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers remained a Spartan operation, employing at most a single clerk and messenger. As a Baltimore Sun reporter observed in 1932, the committee’s process was also interminably slow for the simple task of throwing things away. “In the record of the Seventy-second Congress is written the story of the struggle, the old, old struggle of some one trying to discard something that has been around for a long time,” the reporter complained with more than a hint of sarcasm. “Six days slip by. The murmurous city broods in the sun. All through the heavy hours of the long, hot afternoons other useless papers steadily accumulate in the files.” Of the final report, the journalist sardonically concluded: “We cannot print it all. The gist of the report is that the committee recommended that the useless papers be got rid of.”

Indeed, the Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers and its members were constantly the subject of scorn by the fourth estate—both for its mandate and its peculiar name. Reporters called the committee “the waste basket” and described it as “well known but entirely unimportant.”

The committee’s members were often targets of political humor. Serving alongside Lex Green in the 1930s, Representative Edward Wason—the “sandy-haired and moustached [sic] son of the pale granite of New Hampshire”—was cast as the “vague and placidly uncommunicative chairman” of the committee when the GOP held the House majority. Columnist Buckley S. Griffin in the Hartford Courant accused the New Hampshire Congressman of making what could be a showy committee loaded with modern efficiency experts instead “a mild and shadowy office, lacking color and glitter, lacking even tangibility.” Griffin gleefully imagined debates in the committee: “How is a paper demonstrated to be useless? And is the decision made by a strict party vote in the committee? Probably.” He described mock “heated and eloquent” disputes in which “the chairman several times has threatened to call the sergeant-at-arms to preserve order.” And Griffin acerbically concluded: “The vote is by secret ballot.” The writer H.I. Phillips observed in a 1931 syndicated column that members of the Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers only had power “when it comes to the question of how far some of those papers can be thrown.”

Wastepaper/tiles/non-collection/7/7-9-waste_paper_1940s_loc_8b00980u.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress These piles of papers from the Office of War Information in the 1940s offer a glimpse into the sheer volume of records and excess waste generated by the executive departments.

From Waste to Revenue

Despite the public ridicule, buried in the committee’s scant records is a story of hard work and impressive savings for the federal government—the sale of large amounts wastepaper on the open market for kindling proved surprisingly profitable. Faced with a particularly large purge of records in the Post Office and Treasury Departments, the 66th Congress (1919–1921) broke precedent by appointing five men to the Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, whose collective efforts netted $41,982.79 for the federal coffers in 1920—more than half a million in modern dollars. In the next two Congresses, the committee had been reduced to its more typical size of two House Members: Indiana Representative Merrill Moores and Kentucky’s Arthur B. Rouse, who were particularly keen on documenting their disposal of documents. They reported selling $18,604.70 of waste paper in the 67th Congress (1921–1923; more than $260,000 in modern dollars) and $22,228.46 in the 68th Congress (1923–1925; more than $300,000 in modern dollars). Among the documents slated for fire kindling: receipts, registered mail log books, carbon duplicates and triplicates, employee passes, employee work slips, and applications for leaves of absence.

In 1926 the Los Angeles Times reported that the correspondence from more than 12,000 people who applied for U.S. citizenship (both successfully and unsuccessfully) were ordered disposed of as part of a “clean up” request from the committee. “A waste paper basket large enough to hold an elephant,” arrived at the Los Angeles-based district office of the naturalization department on April 28, 1926, to haul away the paper.

The National Archives in 1935/tiles/non-collection/7/7-9-nara_1935_loc_38731u.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress The National Archives Building was approved as part of the Public Buildings Act in 1926, one of several federal buildings authorized for construction in the Federal Triangle area of Washington, DC.

In 1933, even as the new National Archives building was going up along Pennsylvania Avenue in northwest Washington, DC, rumor spread that Congress planned to eliminate the Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, with one source reporting that it would be “done away with altogether and not . . . missed much.” But the same reporter was quick to admit that then-committee members Green and Wason did not receive enough credit for their work. “Some [documents] are cleaning and pressing bills, butcher shop receipts, and what not,” Green stated. “Others are records which may have historical value, or bearing on a department’s affairs. We are supposed to read those papers. Nobody pays any particular attention to us now but they would if we let something get by that should be preserved.”

New Oversight

The National Archives Act of 1934 (Public Law 73–432) created the office of Archivist of the United States and the National Archives council to determine which federal records the government needed to keep. But one of the Archivist’s duties was to submit to Congress an annual list of government documents deemed useless, so long as the corresponding federal agency and the National Archives council agreed those records could be destroyed.

Employees for the National Archives first occupied the new building in 1935, even though it would take another two years before the construction finally ended. Instead of scrapping the Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, however, the House took its role more seriously. On April 9, 1935, Rules Committee Chairman John O’Connor of New York introduced H. Res. 173, transferring the Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers’ jurisdiction and documents to a new Committee on the Disposition of Executive Papers—dropping the word “useless” from the committee’s name. “The . . . use of this particular word in the name of the committee has caused some ridicule for a number of years and has deterred Members from serving on the committee,” O’Connor observed. “It has for some time been thought that the real standing of the committee could be enhanced by this proposed change in its title, the striking out of the word ‘useless.’ It is not a ‘useless’ committee.”

Robert Digges Wimberly Connor/tiles/non-collection/7/7-9-nara_connor_first_archivist_18348_2008_001_a.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Robert Digges Wimberly Connor served as the first Archivist of the United States, taking office on October 10, 1934.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, debate on the name change devolved into sarcasm and frustration amid the backdrop of much more pressing issues stemming from the Great Depression. “I want to congratulate the chairman of the committee on bringing a very important matter into the House,” sniped Minority Leader Bertrand Snell of New York. “I think, considering the fact we have nothing very important before Congress at the present time, the gentleman has done well to bring this in.” Future Speaker Joseph Martin of Massachusetts took a swipe at the Democrat’s New Deal agenda, even while announcing his support for the name change. “I can well realize the handicap under which they are working,” he mockingly observed about the committee. “There are many bureaus of the present administration engaged in destroying useful things, such as cotton, cattle, hogs, and so forth. So I do not blame the committee members for resenting that they should be restricted to the destruction of useless things.” Ultimately, the resolution changing the name of the committee passed by voice vote in the House. The new Committee on the Disposition of Executive Papers remained a standing committee in the House until the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 transferred the responsibility of reviewing executive agency documents for historic value to the General Services Administration (GSA), with the House Administration Committee providing advice and counsel at GSA’s request.

And what became of poet/Representative Lex Green? In 1933 Democrats rewarded his diligence, loyalty, and ability to endure ridicule by naming him chairman of the Committee on Territories, a much more influential panel. Green remained at the helm of that committee for the remaining 12 years of his House career.

Sources: Congressional Directory, various editions; South Trimble, Annual Report of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, 62nd Cong., 2nd sess., H.Doc. 242 (1911); Congressional Record, House, 69th Cong., 1st sess. (10 December 1925); Congressional Record, House, 74th Cong., 1st sess. (9 April 1935); Joint Select Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, 66th Cong., 3rd sess., H. Rept. 1419 (1921); Joint Select Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, 67th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 464 (1921); Joint Select Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, 67th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 1237 (1922); Joint Select Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, 68th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 325 (1924); Joint Select Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers in the Government Printing Office, Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, 68th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 1021 (1924); Joint Select Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, 68th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 1650 (1925); Joint Select Committee on Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, Disposition of Useless Executive Papers, 69th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 3 (1925); Committee on Rules, Amend Clause 44 of Rule X of the House of Representatives, 74th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 510 (1935); National Archives and Records Administration, “Guide to House Records: Chapter 12: Committee on Disposition of Executive Papers,” https://www.archives.gov/legislative/guide/house/chapter-12-disposition-of-papers.html; United States Department of Commerce, Historical Statistics of the United States, 1789–1945 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1949); Washington Post, 13 January 1911, 14 November 1931, 27 December 1931, 15 January 1933; Chicago Daily Tribune, 18 February 1912; Baltimore Sun, 12 December 1925, 6 December 1932; Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 December 1925; Los Angeles Times, 29 April 1926; Hartford Courant, 1 July 1929; Daily Boston Globe, 16 November 1931; New York Times, 3 January 1933; Garrison Nelson, Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1947–1992, vol. 2 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1994); Oregon State University, “Inflation Conversion Factors for Dollars, 1774 to Estimated 2018,” https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/spp/polisci/research/inflation-conversion-factors; Robert M. Crunden,“Progressive Era,” in The Oxford Companion to United States History, ed. Paul S. Boyer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): 623–624; National Archives and Records Administration, “A History of the National Archives Building, Washington, DC,” accessed 8 July 2019, https://www.archives.gov/about/history/building.html.