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Labor and the Legislative Process: The Long, Twilight Struggle

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 40, Number 4, December 2012
pp. 668-672 | 10.1353/rah.2012.0091

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This is a multiple-choice quiz. Which of the following four factors best explains the inability of organized labor and its liberal allies to gain passage of progressive labor, income support, and social welfare legislation in the post–New Deal era? Is it: (a) organized labor’s lethargy, bureaucratic inertia, and general retreat from the militancy and radicalism of the 1930s and 1940s; (b) the vast disparity in financial and organizational resources enjoyed by the corporate and other conservative opponents of progressive projects; (c) an intrinsically conservative, antigovernment electoral majority that simply does not want a strong labor movement and an expansive social welfare state; or (d) the institutional constraints that the traditions and practices of the legislative process, as reinforced by features of the U.S. Constitution, have imposed on liberal activism?

Tracy Roof suggests an answer, although she also hedges her bets. She believes that responsibility for thwarting the post–New Deal development of the American welfare state lies in Congress and the way it goes about doing its work. In particular, this thoughtful, clearly written, and well-researched book “examines the effect of the legislative process on the ability of reformers,” led by organized labor, “to expand the social safety net” (p. 3) and to remove obstacles to union expansion. Alternative explanations get short shrift.

Roof calls particular attention to the ways in which the “conservative coalition” of Republicans and Southern Democrats shaped the legislative process in the four decades after the demise of the New Deal. Interlocking procedural and structural factors repeatedly blunted progressive initiatives such as labor law reform, expansion of income support programs, national health-care legislation, and, for much of the period, civil rights enactments. Reliance on seniority in determining committee assignments meant that members from the one-party South claimed the most important slots, most notably as chairs of such powerful House committees as Rules and Ways and Means. Entrenched Southern committee chairs employed a wide range of arcane rules and traditions to stymie liberal initiatives. In the Senate, the filibuster—or more usually, simply the threat of filibuster—served the same purpose.

In Roof’s account, the labor movement has been the most tenacious and well-organized of the constituencies pressing for progressive legislation and seeking ways through the congressional labyrinth. While its lobbyists and legislative operatives have made mistakes, on the whole, organized labor has been vigorous and resourceful in keeping the progressive agenda alive. As World War II ended, labor spokesmen such as Philip Murray, William Green, George Meany, and Walter Reuther were optimistic about the prospects of expanding the New Deal. Even before the congressional elections of 1946 and the passage in June 1947 of the Taft-Hartley Act, however, Congress rejected or emasculated liberal legislative initiatives, notably full employment legislation and efforts to make permanent the wartime Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC). Truman’s upset victory in the 1948 presidential election and the return of a Democratic congressional majority briefly buoyed hopes that the onward march of New Deal reform could resume; but a resumption of Southern domination of House committees ensured that there would be no legislative breakthroughs in health care, income support, civil rights, or labor law revision.

In the 1950s and 1960s, labor’s electoral efforts helped to send many Northern liberals, most of them Democrats, to Congress. Along with a few Republicans from industrial states, labor and its liberal allies launched a decades-long effort to change Congress’ institutional arrangements, while at the same time fighting frustrating battles for incremental improvements in social welfare and income support programs. Social Security coverage was expanded and benefits periodically upgraded. Even if liberals did not achieve their goal of nationalizing standards for, and administration of, unemployment compensation, they did, during times of recession, gain extension of benefits. The minimum wage inched upward and now covered a larger proportion of the labor force. An expanded federal role in school and hospital construction and in furthering medical education, while no substitute for comprehensive national health insurance, kept labor’s agenda alive. Incremental reform reached its apogee during the eighty-ninth Congress, elected in 1964, with the passage of legislation providing federally funded and administered medical insurance for the...

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