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  • The Quest to Bring “Business Efficiency” to the Federal Executive: Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Civil Service Reformers in the Late 1920s
  • Jesse Tarbert (bio)

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, leading administrative reformers remained committed to pursuing “executive reorganization.” By rearranging agencies and bureaus in the federal executive branch based on function and major purpose, they hoped to create a more efficient national administration—one with the capacity to enact national policies.1 By the mid-1920s, executive reorganization had assumed a position, alongside civil service reform and the national budget system, of the unfinished third pillar in a sort of holy trinity of “good government.” This was the theme struck by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover when he addressed the national meeting of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1925: [End Page 512]

Over many years our people have been striving to better the federal administration. We have succeeded in two major steps; we still have a third equally important and perhaps more difficult one to accomplish. The first was the establishment of government employment based upon merit. The second was the establishment of adequate control of appropriations through the budget system. There still remains the third and even greater but more obscure waste—that of faulty organization of administrative functions. And the two first steps will never reach the full realization without the third.2

Hoover made these remarks at a moment when the executive reorganization movement was at an ebb, less than a year after leaders in Congress had defeated an ambitious reorganization plan proposed by the administration of Warren G. Harding. In an attempt to build on the success of the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, Harding tried to use the Congressional Joint Committee on the Reorganization of the Administrative Branch of the Government to advance his own vision of executive reorganization. Harding succeeded in placing his personal representative, Toledo attorney Walter F. Brown, at the head of the committee, allowing the president to direct its activities. However, despite broad support from a bipartisan group of elite reformers, the joint committee disbanded in 1924. Its recommendations—endorsed by Harding as well as Calvin Coolidge—never came to a vote. With his speech in 1925, Hoover hoped to breathe spark back into the cause.

The arcane details of debates about reorganization have sometimes concealed the high stakes involved. Although the topic has not attracted much attention from nonspecialists, scholars interested in the development of public administration at the national level have placed executive reorganization at the center of the history of the modern American state. Should the U.S. Forest Service be located within the Department of Agriculture or the Department of the Interior? Should the Corps of Engineers remain in the Department of War or be moved to Interior? Such questions generated controversy for much of the twentieth century, and the outcome of these debates would help determine the reach, touch, and strength of the national government. They would help determine whether a president could exert his will in Mississippi and Montana as well as Manhattan, or whether a congressmen could intervene to defend local prerogatives.

The movement for executive reorganization had its roots in the early twentieth century, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt’s exploratory Keep Commission and building momentum with William Howard Taft’s more [End Page 513] exhaustive Commission on Economy and Efficiency, but most historical accounts have emphasized the New Deal as the key inflection point. In 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt convened a group of experts from the emerging academic discipline of public administration studies to form his Committee on Administrative Management. This committee, known as the Brownlow Committee—after its leader, public administration pioneer Louis Brownlow—recommended a series of reforms that would make it easier for the president to manage the federal bureaucracy from the top. After the committee’s initial proposals provoked opposition in Congress, a compromise plan was enacted in 1939. Among other reforms, the 1939 Reorganization Act created the Executive Office of the President of the United States, one of the most consequential steps in the development of the modern American administrative state. Scholars have tended to view modern, executive...


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