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  • Aesop’s Fables and Miners’ Wages: Sen. Rush Holt’s Filibuster, 1936
  • Rush D. Holt Jr.

On April 11, 2011, the Department of History at West Virginia University presented the inaugural Rush D. Holt Lecture, named for the senator from West Virginia (1935–1941). The lecture (which follows) was delivered by his son, Rush D. Holt Jr., member of Congress from New Jersey.

In my office is a campaign poster from 1934 advertising Rush D. Holt for U.S. Senate, with a sketch of the twenty-nine-year-old, and the words: New Deal Champion, 100 percent in favor of Roosevelt’s Recovery Program, the friend of the Common Man in West Virginia, Faithful and Fearless. I have often wondered about the meaning of that poster, knowing that my father challenged many of his Democratic colleagues over various New Deal programs, and that leaders of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) came to oppose him fiercely. Because of his apparently contradictory positions, he probably had the strongest admirers and strongest enemies of anyone I have known in politics. In this lecture, I focus on one day in the career of Senator Holt, a day from which we can learn much about the crisis in New Deal policy making, stresses in organized labor, frantic legislative maneuvering, and the character of a politician who had burst on the scene barely a year before.

On June 20, 1936, late in the evening, as the U.S. Senate was trying to wrap up business for the year in order to adjourn, a young senator rose and was recognized to claim the floor. “Mr. President,” he said, “I realize that many senators have stayed late tonight to hear discussion of the coal bill . . . but I wish to read to them tonight from a volume called Aesop’s Fables.” His intention was to prevent by filibuster passage into law of the Guffey coal bill. Resisting the efforts of the older senators to wrest control of the floor from him, he held on until the leaders threw in the towel and dropped the bill for the year. Senator Holt later said, “I am proud I talked the Guffey bill to death.” [End Page 35]

Filibusters, the parliamentary maneuvers for talking a bill to death, were not rare, but this successful one by a single senator, in office for barely a year, and in opposition to his own party, is worth consideration. Holt’s filibuster against the Guffey coal bill in 1936 came at the convergence of several strands of history. As the country struggled to get out of the Depression, Congress had taken the lead of President Franklin Roosevelt to insert the federal government into almost every aspect of economic life and produced a variety of laws to protect workers by, among other things, setting minimum wages and establishing a regular work week. In addition, a battle was joined between the Roosevelt administration and the U.S. Supreme Court that promised to determine the future of American government for generations to come. The meteoric rise of a dynamic, liberal, young politician from West Virginia put him right in the midst of this convergence.

FDR’s ambitious legislative program, most notably banking reform and social security, had kept Congress in session until late August 1935, through the oppressive heat of a Washington summer in the days before air-conditioning. So leaders declared that the second session in 1936 would be short and more in keeping with the tradition of adjourning in June, sine die, for the year. No sooner had the leadership set the short schedule than the Supreme Court began invalidating earlier New Deal legislation, which created both a political debate about what replacements to pass for the rejected laws and a scheduling debate about the order in which to consider them.

The New Deal programs were helping to alleviate the plight of workers. The National Industrial Recovery Act, passed quickly after FDR took office in 1933, was too sweeping and poorly constructed, but nevertheless proved very beneficial while it lasted. It set standards for “fair competition” and required a minimum wage and a maximum work week. The National Recovery Administration awarded a Blue Eagle of...


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