Uphill All the Way: The Fortunes of Progressivism, 1919-1929
By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Five:
The Politics of Normalcy

Progressives and the Fight for Good Government

III. Lobbies Pestiferous and Progressive

I. The Harding White House.
II. Organizing in Opposition
III. Lobbies Pestiferous
IV. The Taint of Newberryism
V. The Harding Scandals
VI. Tempest From a Teapot

When decrying the power of lobbies at the April 1921 rollout of the People's Legislative Service, Robert La Follette and Basil Manly were echoing a common lament among progressives about the growth and abuse of lobbying in Washington. "Washington has never been jammed to the extent that it now is with representatives of special economic groups," wrote Donald Wilhelm in The Survey in July 1921. "The trade association is today what the corporation and the trust were less than a generation ago, a national problem that threatens the sovereignty of the individual citizen." An article in the January 29, 1921 Literary Digest discussed attempts in Washington "To Curb the Pestiferous Lobbyist." "I do not know where this lobbying business is going to stop," lamented Senator Kenyon of Iowa. "Washington is swarming with lobbies of every kind and description, so that is impossible for Senators to get to their offices without being intercepted." The New York Evening World lamented "the epidemic of lobbying…spreading like a plague." Soon, it argued, "we must make up our minds whether this is to be a government by duly elected and responsible representatives of the people or a government by lobby."1

To many progressives, who envisioned themselves as committed to the Public Interest above all else, the proliferation of lobbies was deeply troubling, particularly as it was hard to draw the line between good lobbying - the healthy education of public opinion - and bad lobbying - the misuse of government by special interests. That is why, commenting on the creation of the People's Legislative Service, The Nation once again emphasized again that the PLS "is not to be a lobby nor a source of propaganda, but a source of facts and therefore an organization around which the free men of Congress should gradually coalesce." As William Kenyon argued, "there are proper kinds of lobbies. Nobody wants Congress to be shut off here on the Hill and have people unable to get to Congress." In fact, even as Kenyon co-sponsored legislation in 1921 with Lee Overman to strengthen disclosure requirements for lobbyists, so that a record of each could be kept in the House, Senate, and executive departments, he was assembling his farm bloc in frequent consultation with the recently-created American Farm Bureau Federation. (Kenyon's bill did not pass, and the issue was not meaningfully dealt with again until the 1930's.)2

In some cases, the growth of lobbying encouraged progressives to be more at peace with class legislation. "At last," Frederic Howe wrote of his work with the People's Legislative Service, "I had found a class whose interests ran hand in hand with things I desired." And one of the strongest lobbies of the Harding years was also a progressive-minded one - the Women's Joint Congressional Committee (WJCC). Organized in 1920 immediately after passage of the nineteenth amendment with Maud Wood Park, president of the League of Women Voters, as Chairwoman, the WJCC was a combined effort of ten (and eventually twenty-one) of the most prominent women's organizations in America. It would launch into action any time three (and later five) of the founding organizations agreed on a given stance.3

In 1921, the WJCC formed its "Six P's" agenda: Prohibition, protection of infants, public schools, physical education, peace through disarmament, and the protection of women in industry. Strongest in the first two years of Harding's presidency, when male politicians of every stripe still feared the swing potential of a unified woman vote, the WJCC first worked to pass the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act, the first federal welfare program of its kind. The brainchild of Julia Lathrop of the Children's Bureau, Sheppard-Towner appropriated $1.5 million a year in 1922, and $1.25 million a year for the next five years, for $5000 grants to child and maternal health programs at the state level.4

"It is now proposed to turn the control of the mothers of the land over to a few single ladies holding government jobs at Washington," bellowed Senator James Reed of Missouri during debate over Sheppard-Towner. "We would better reverse the proposition and provide for a committee of mothers to take charge of the old maids and teach them how to acquire a husband and have babies of their own." Thanks to the hard work of the WJCC, Reed's sexism lost the day in decisive fashion: The Sheppard-Towner Act passed the House 279-39 and the Senate 63-7. Senator Kenyon, who decried the influence of lobbies on other occasions, noted that "if the members could have voted on that measure secretly in their cloak rooms it would have been killed as emphatically as it was finally passed in the open under the pressure of the Joint Congressional Committee of Women."5

The WJCC's work was not done. Since the Act prescribed funds on a voluntary basis, the WJCC and new Children's Bureau head Grace Abbott began lobbying governors and state legislatures to make sure the money went to good use. Within a year, 42 of 48 states had accepted the Act, and by 1923 forty of them began accepting funds. Within five years, every state but Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Illinois took advantage of Sheppard-Towner funding.6

The WJCC also scored another success the following year with the 1922 Cable Act, which, as promised in both the Republican and Democratic platforms of 1920, at last made women's citizenship independent of their husbands. That same year, according to historian Dorothy Brown, both the Ladies' Home Journal and the Journal of the American Medical Association (who saw Sheppard-Towner as an unwarranted federal incursion into their domain) described WJCC as the "most powerful and highly organized lobby in Washington" and "one of the strongest that has even been seen in Washington" respectively. Another journal, according to historian Robyn Muncy, deemed it "the most widespread and popular lobby that probably has ever visited this city." By 1924, the director of the U.S. Women's Bureau bragged that "American women are organized, highly organized, and by the millions. They are organized to carry out programs of social and political action." In her May 1924 annual report to the LWV, Maud Wood Park noted that two-thirds of the League's thirteen-plank program in 1920 had been made law, and that the LWV - now organized in 346 of 433 congressional districts - had passed 420 and defeated 64 bills at the state-level. The following month, the WJCC added to the total: Working with Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the highest-ranking woman in the administration and the person in charge of Prohibition efforts, it secured passage of legislation creating a federal women's prison in Alderson, West Virginia.7

In many ways, the WJCC's power and efficiency was the result not just of its broad constituency and male fears of a "women's bloc", but a reflection of the decades of experience its founders had amassed in fighting for suffrage and other battles from the sidelines. Twenty years previously, one of the first progressives to recognize the potential of lobbying for social change had been Florence Kelley, who established the National Consumers League in 1899. As Arthur Schlesinger put it, "the League's investigations turned up facts to stir the public conscience. Then the League's lawyers drafted bills, and the League's lobbyists sought to push them through legislatures." By the time Florence Kelley was head of the WJCC's subcommittee in support of Sheppard-Towner in 1921, she was a veteran hand at the lobbying arts. "Every year from a quarter to a third of a million little children, and approximately 20,000 mothers in childbirth, die from preventable causes," Kelley had argued in The Survey in June 1920. "There is no visible, or audible, responsible opposition to the bill." Under her leadership, in the weeks before passage, the WJCC interviewed fifty Members of Congress a day and flooded the Hill with letters from concerned women from all over the country. "I think every woman in my state has written to the Senator," said one exasperated aide.8

So, as much as some progressives lamented lobbying as a pernicious tool of special interests, they also took advantage of it to press reforms when the opportunities arose. In fact, one could argue that organized lobbying of the government had originally been a progressive reform. As historian John Danbom writes, the Progressive Era reforms that had worked to break the post-Civil War stranglehold the two national parties had on politics also "created greater opportunities for organized groups to influence politics…Political reforms weakened the parties, but this merely increased the ability of self-serving groups to influence the system, regardless of the public interest." In the words of another historian cited by Danbom, John Whiteclay Chambers, "in their search for a larger public interest, progressives inadvertently contributed to the growth of the interest-group democracy they bemoaned."9

The Twenties were the apotheosis of this transformation. "The 1920s," Lynn Dumenil argues in The Modern Temper, "saw the systematizing of lobbying that caused a permanent change in the political process." William Allen White, for one, thought that lobbying was an auspicious development - It made government more accessible to all. "One has but to reach out his hand to become effective in it," he wrote in 1924. "Democracy never was so near the people as it is" today. But this innovation came with a cost. "The more suffragists behaved as simply another interest group, trading a principle there for an advantage here," argued William O'Neill in his 1971 history of feminism, Everyone Was Brave, "the less capable they became of preserving what had brought them into politics to begin with. In a sense, suffragists and social reformers were depleting their moral capital."10

As Danbom argues, citing O'Neill, what was true of women's groups "applies in some degree to virtually every progressive group." As more and more organizations entered the lobbying game on behalf of a particular constituency, it became harder and harder to maintain the progressive idea of a public interest against a variety of competing special interests. In opening the door to lobbying, the progressives helped to facilitate the philosophical shift away from the progressive concept of a public interest to the more modern conception of a government as broker state.11

They also, Lynn Dumenil argues, helped to encourage the type of disgust with the political process that turned the engaged citizens of the Progressive Era into the disinterested consumers of more recent times. Lobbying, argued another Donald Wilhelm article, "operates to disfranchise the individual citizen so unfortunate as to be unrepresented by any of them." Because of these "Washington Soviets," Wilhelm argued, "the average citizen has half-consciously sensed his individual impotence." As a result, "less than sixty percent of us take the trouble to cast our votes." In the words of one disgruntled Klansman of the period, "Everybody knows that politicians nowadays cater to all kinds of 'elements' mostly selfish, some corrupt, and some definitely anti-American. They cater to the German vote, the Catholic Vote, the Jewish vote, the Italian vote, the bootleg vote, the vice vote, and sometimes even to the violently criminal vote." Wherever you stood in the political spectrum, left or right, the growth of systematized lobbying gave citizens of all stripes the increasing perception that the game was rigged.12

Continue to Chapter 5, Pt. 4: The Taint of Newberryism.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Donald Wilhelm, "On the Capitol's Doormat," The Survey, July 2, 1921, 475. "To Curb the Pestiferous Lobbyist," The Literary Digest, January 29, 1921, 13.
2. The Nation, April 27, 1921, 609. Compounding the good lobby/bad lobby problem was the fact that progressives didn't always agree which organizations were actually doing the people's business. While Kenyon seemed to appreciate the help and advice of the American Farm Bureau Federation, George Norris found that the AFBA was usually opposed to his progressive measures, and that its leadership seemed to listen more to the Harding administration than to the needs of actual farmers. Lowitt, 181.
3. Dawley, 317. Brown, 52. Robyn Muncy, Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform 1890-1935 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 101-103. Dumenil, 47. Nancy Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987, 97-99. Wilson, The Women's Joint Congressional Committee, 1.
4. Ibid. Olson, 301. Joseph P. Chepaitis, "Federal Social Welfare Progressivism in the 1920's," Social Service Review, June 172 (Vol. 46, No. 2), pp. 213-229. Muncy, 106-107. Brown, 54. Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 500-506. J. Stanley Lemons, "The Sheppard-Towner Act: Progressivism in the 1920s" The Journal of American History, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Mar., 1969), pp. 776-786.
5. Skocpol, 501, 505. Lemons, "The Sheppard Towner Act." Capping this losing effort, Senator Reed tried to amend the bill to change its title to 'A Bill to organize a Board of Spinsters to Teach Mothers How to Raise Babies." Brown, 53.
6. Ibid.
7. Skocpol, 505. Brown, 52-57. Muncy, 105. Cott, 98-99. "The Week," The New Republic, May 14th, 1924 (Vol. 38, No. 493), 295.
8. Schlesinger, 24-25. Muncy, 105-107. Florence Kelley, "Why Let Children Die?" The Survey, June 19th, 1920, 401. "[B]abies have no votes, no organization," Kelley told Survey readers. "They write no letters. They visit no lawgivers in their homes in the long vacation of Congress from July to December. They demand no pledges from candidates. They join no political parties in times of political stress. They punish no political enemies. They buttonhole no lawgivers. They carry on no publicity campaign." Babies may lack for these things, but Kelley, it is clear, had a good sense for the levers of political power that a lobbyist needed to employ to effect change. Ibid.
9. Danbom, 179.
10. O'Neill quoted in Danbom, 179.
11. Ibid.
12. Dumenil, 50-54, 211.

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