The American Presidency Project

Anyone who has done some researching on U.S. presidential history has probably at one point or another utilized the resources of the American Presidency Project at UCSB. And if any interested readers (you ARE out there, aren’t you?) haven’t, I can’t recommend too highly this excellent source of nearly 90,000 presidential documents, organized and coded in an easily accessible and searchable database.

And I’m happy to say I was able to contribute 2 out of these 90,000 documents only recently – check out, if you will, the following links to two addresses by president Warren G. Harding to the Business Organization of the Government assembly. Your humble blogger is acknowledged in the footnotes !

http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=88996

http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=88995

Pecking away at waste and extravagance

I have a sense that after decades of budgetary profligacy, America may be in the mood for more economy and efficiency in government, exemplified by leaders such as Governors Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie who are showing an almost Coolidgean willingness to take on spending excesses.

I haven’t tallied up the numbers and don’t know whether our situation is similar to, or possibly even exceeds, the fiscal calamity America found itself in after World War I caused an almost 20-fold increase in the national debt. In other posts I have begun to report on the efforts by presidents Harding and Coolidge, and their respective Directors of the Budget, to instill a sense of purpose and urgency at all levels of the federal bureaucracy but can’t resist adding a little item on General Lord, second Director of the Budget, taken from the book The Office of Management and Budget and the Presidency, 1921 – 1979, by Larry Berman:

Lord actually checked employees’ desks for excessive use of official stationery, paper clips, and other government supplies. He also engaged in such quaint-sounding ploys as establishing a “Two Per Cent Club” for agency heads who trimmed that amount off their estimates, a “One Per Cent Club” reserved for the less efficient, and the “Loyal Order of Woodpeckers,” whose motto read: “All hail to the Loyal Order of Woodpeckers, whose persistent tapping away at waste will make cheerful music in government offices and workshops the coming year.”

Quaint as this may sound to the author of those lines, I can’t help but feel that it would be nice to hear that tap-tap-tapping sound emanate from government offices today – they sure would have their work cut out for them!

Please see also this more substantial post on the Business Organization of the Government.

From pride to disappointment – Coolidge’s final speech to the Business Organization of the Government

On January 28, 1929 – just a few weeks before leaving the White House – Calvin Coolidge spoke at the 16th and, as it turned out, last meeting of the Business Organization of the Government. Looking back on 8 years of reining in a government structure “permeated with extravagance”, the president listed the stunning accomplishments, chief among them the unprecedented reduction in the national debt and the concurrent tax reductions. Beyond mere statistics, the speech clearly shows that this project was Coolidge’s major opus, the cornerstone of what he wanted to accomplish in office and what he intended to leave as his legacy. Yes, it must have rankled sometimes to be accused by some of “considering nothing but the material side of life” or charged with “advocating a penurious and cheeseparing policy.” But ultimately, having inserted “a golden page in our history,” this least war-like of presidents was justified in stating that “peace hath its victories no less than war.”

Characteristically, Coolidge cautions near the end of his speech that “the margin between prosperity and depression is very small,” urging continued vigilance against extravagance and waste. Not very much later, that depression really was at hand, and Coolidge’s successors chose to follow policies much different from his. Today, economists and historians debate whether their frantic actions, resulting in a huge expansion of government rather than “constructive economy”, prolonged and worsened rather than shortened the Great Depression. Be that as it may, Coolidge himself later stated that he felt out of touch with these new policies. It is poignant to me to note how proud he must have felt at the time of giving this speech, and how devastating it must have been later, when this proudest of his achievements was dragged down by the Great Depression and indeed his own policies were blamed as causes of the economic downturn.

Cut defense spending? What Would Coolidge Do?

While the new Congress brings in a group of conservative freshmen (and -women), they seem to remain conflicted as to whether the military should be included in spending cuts of any significance, renewing the tug-of-war between fiscal conservatives and defense hawks. Writing on reason.com last November, Peter Suderman noted that while many conservative individuals and organizations (such as Coolidge fan Sarah Palin, AEI and the Heritage Foundation) stood squarely against military spending cuts,  Ron and Rand Paul, both early advocates for cutting defense, were being joined by other Republican notables such as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, Sen. Tom Coburn and Sen.-elect Pat Toomey.

For what it’s worth -and notwithstanding the completely different scenario the U.S. finds itself in today vs. the 1920s- it should be very clear that if Calvin Coolidge were in the White House today, and faced with the present budget crisis, he would not hesitate to cut, squeeze and trim the military budget just like any other part of the bloated federal government.

Here’s an extended quote from his address at the 12th seminannual meeting of the Business Organization of the Government, given January 29th, 1927:

The public debt has a direct connection with the question of military preparedness. To the extent that we are able to reduce our public debt and to eliminate the vast charges of interest thereon, to that extent are we adding to our military preparedness [emphasis added] (…).

(…)Aside from the many and other more important reasons, we should, from a financial standpoint alone, refrain from any gesture which could possibly be construed as militaristic. There are in the nation people who advocate policies which would place us in a militaristic attitude. There are others who beguile themselves with a feeling of absolute safety and preach a doctrine of extreme pacifism. Both of these are dangerous to our continued peace and prosperity. What we need, and all that we need, for national protection is adequate preparedness. (…)

I am for adequate military preparedness. It is a question to which I always give the most serious thought in my recommendations to the Congress in the budget message. As Commander in Chief of the Army and of the Navy, the Chief Executive of this nation has an emphatic responsibility for this phase of our welfare. As a nation we are advocates of peace. Not only should we refrain from any act which might be construed as calling for competition in armament, but rather should we bend our every effort to eliminate forever any such competition. (…) Surely the best interests of all are found in directing to the channels of public welfare moneys which would otherwise be spent without reproductive results.”

Again, it goes without saying that times are vastly different today. The 1920s were the aftermath of the most disastrous military conflagration the world had seen up to that time, most potential rivals and foes were in disastrous shape economically and militarily, and thus calls for disarmament were mostly favorably received by the public.The U.S. faces a much more diverse and robust array of potential rivals, though few actual enemies.

But it is my conviction that Calvin Coolidge would be just as appalled by the iron grip of the “military-industrial complex” (as decried by president Eisenhower in his farewell address) on the nation’s treasury as he would be by the ballooning budget deficit. Given his laser-like focus on constructive economy in government, it is inconceivable that he would leave the military budget untouched. His priorities were clear: budget consolidation first, military spending second. In fact, many years before Eisenhower’s famous remarks, Coolidge expressed his view of the inordinate sway of the military over the budget in a newspaper column on May 11, 1931:

Some years ago careful investigations were made by General Lord, Director of the Budget, in an attempt to stabilize military expenses at about half a billion dollars.  So much opposition arose in the Congress that little progress was made. The Army and Navy now cost about seven hundred and twenty-five millions. Instead of a reduction there has been a rather steady increase in appropriations. The interests involved have become firmly intrenched in Washington.

The Business Organization of the Government

Incredible as it may seem, procedures for government spending up until the early 1920s were mostly fairly haphazard. The Treasury Department submitted yearly estimates of expenses for all government departments, which resulted in as many as fourteen separate appropriations bills. In 1919, President Wilson had called for the establishment of a national budget system as Congress was separately working on such a proposal, but a compromise worked out between a House and Senate bill was not satisfactory and ultimately vetoed by Wilson.

Wilson’s successor Warren G. Harding had the good fortune to secure from Congress a budget measure that gave the president complete authority over all budget matters. Charles  G. Dawes, who had been Harding’s first choice as Secretary of the Treasury, was named as the first ever Commissioner of the Budget. Dawes warned Harding that “you must realize that you are the first president to tackle the job of a coordinated business control over the departments. I doubt if you recognize the strength of the 150 years of archaisms which you must fight.” Nevertheless, Dawes accepted the job, on the proviso that it be for only one year.

Successive budget directors Charles G. Dawes (left) and Herbert M. Lord in 1922

Harding and Dawes inaugurated the Business Organization of the Government, which first met on June 29, 1921. All members of the cabinet and 1200 bureau and divison chiefs met in the auditorium of the Interior Department. Harding told the assembly that “there is not a menace in the world today like that of growing public indebtedness and mounting public expenditures…we want to reverse things.” With something close to evangelistic fervor, Dawes then spoke for an hour, indicating his specific goal as the removal of “fat” and extravagance from the government. He concluded by requesting all those in the audience upon whom he could depend in this quest to rise – the entire audience rose. Harding later commented that Dawes was the only man he had ever seen who while talking could keep “both feet and both arms in the air at once.”

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