What FDR Can Teach Us About Congress and National Emergencies

by Martin Halpern

Martin Halpern is professor emeritus of history at Henderson State University and the author of UAW Politics in the Cold War Era and Unions, Radicals, and Democratic Presidents: Seeking Social Change in the Twentieth Century.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sam Rayburn, and Alben Barkley

 

Seventy-five years ago this week, there was a serious conflict between President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress. The United States was at war, indisputably a national emergency. Today we face a serious conflict between President Donald Trump and Congress. President Trump has declared a national emergency in order to spend monies appropriated by Congress for other purposes in order to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. Only Trump’s supporters, a minority of the country, see an emergency. If Trump is not stopped, we will have taken a serious step toward authoritarian government. We may draw some lessons from the conflict between Roosevelt and Congress in 1944 that may be helpful today.

As a follow-up to his call for an Economic Bill of Rights in his January 11, 1944, State of the Union address, Roosevelt had proposed to raise $10.5 billion for the prosecution of the war and domestic needs. The resulting Revenue Act raised only $2.1 billion and included tax cuts and new benefits for bondholders and the airline, lumber, and natural gas industries. On February 22, 1944, Roosevelt issued a veto message, charging that the measure enacted by Congress was “not a tax bill but a tax relief bill providing relief not for the needy but for the greedy.” Although Roosevelt was right in his criticism, the reaction on Capitol Hill was outrage. 

The next morning, Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley of Kentucky, hitherto a close supporter of the president, charged that…

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