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Notes of the Month

Discussion on Congress

(October 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 9, October 1942, pp. 259–260.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

For a considerable period of time, Congress has been the subject of public discussion. Political theorists, news commentators and political columnists have expounded their views on what is good or bad about Congress as the representative legislative body of American democracy. As a rule these discussions merely concerned themselves with the individual and collective stature of Congress as a legislative body in the midst of the war. It has become clear that from the point of view of America’s imperialist interests in the war, Congress has been found wanting.

Congress is certainly a curious body, to say the least. Its political, educational and human level is fairly low grade. Both the Senate and the House are dominated by a group of reactionary bourbons and legislative servants of big business. The dominant congressional figures take pride in the fact that they know nothing, are narrow-minded bigots, reactionary to the core. Their greatest boasts are that they have succeeded time and again in defeating any and all legislation having the slightest taint of progressivism or liberalism, however faulty, incomplete and insoluble those proposals may have been. Congress is almost as completely subservient to big business and its lobbies as it is generally impervious to the influence of the liberals and labor.

There are plenty of millionaires and direct representatives of big business in the congressional halls. They are the most influential group in the representative body. Behind them stand a solid phalanx of smaller business men, large landowners, brokers, corporation lawyers, insurance agents and professional politicians, whose essential aim in life is to remain in office. In contrast, there is not a single representative of labor to be found in the Senate, or in the House with its several hundred members. It is this latter fact which epitomizes the Seventy-seventh Congress.

By its very nature, Congress is a body wracked by contradictions. Dominated by the ideology of the bourgeoisie in general, responding to its over-all interests, its representative form gives expression to the inner-class conflicts of the American bourgeoisie. It also reflects the pressure of the petty bourgeoisie, of sectional economic interests, of special group interests and, at times, given certain objective conditions, reflects the pressure of the organized labor movement. But it is by no means the representative of the people; it is not a truly democratic institution. Congress is today a hierarchical political body composed of electees of the two bourgeois political parties.

How Much Democracy for the People?

What real intervention is possible for the people in the selection of the congressional candidates? Representation at best is indirect. The candidates are picked by the party bosses. The parties are dominated by big business. In the South, Roosevelt’s party is directed by the genius of racialists, landowners and bourbons, whose ideological development is on a par with the old slaveholders and feudal lords. In the urban centers of the North, political machines decide, if not the presidential candidate of the party, then most offices below it. The masses have no power except to vote for machine candidates selected in the smoke-filled halls of the political factions. For the truth is that the early nineteenth century American democracy of agrarian and commercial capitalism has disappeared. It faded from the scene with the industrialization of the country and the triumph of monopoly capitalism. What is left is a residue, more precisely, the democratic form of popular election. How this has redounded to the benefit of the economically dominant ruling class is evident in another fact, i.e., the inferiority of the American electoral system to that which exists even in aristocracy-ridden Great Britain.

Who runs the political parties? Boss Hague, Jim Farley, Kelly-Nash, Senator Byrd, Senator Tydings, Senator Connally, to name a few of the Democrats. Or Col. McCormick, Congressman Joe Martin, Senator Taft, to name a few of the Northern bourbons who run the Republican Party. However much Roosevelt, Wallace and the rest of the New Dealers may crack the whip, and even get obedience, with the exception of Roosevelt, they are regarded by the party bosses as political crackpots, visionaries and despoilers of the American system of “free enterprise.” The latter do not, for example, guide the Democratic Party.

Congress is run by tradition rather than intelligence. Otherwise it could not be, even in the Senate and the House, that so many nincompoops could head all the important congressional committees. But seniority rules and thus the Southern bloc heads a majority of the important committees. Take the Senate Finance Committee as an example. It is composed of the following: Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia, a millionaire apple grower; millionaire Peter Gerry of Rhode Island; millionaire Robert Taft of Ohio; Joe Guffy of Pennsylvania, an underling of the Mellons; millionaire Jim Davis of Pennsylvania, and the well-to-do conservatives, Josiah Bailey of North Carolina, Walter George of Georgia and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. This is not an exceptional case. Most committees follow this pattern.

It Is Not Merely Low Esteem

When William Hard writes in the Readers Digest of October that; “Public esteem for the Congress has been falling, and today it is probably lower than ever before in history,” he is stating a fact. His proposal that Congress improve itself by hiring technically trained experts to advise its committees, or to educate itself, of course, misses the whole point. It is not merely a matter of the low caliber of Congress. What we are really observing is a bourgeois democratic parliamentary crisis and its day-to-day decline as an institution. Even under the best circumstances, with an improved composition of this bourgeois parliament, it would be faced with its own degeneration.

This degeneration is indigenous to the general decay of the social order, of which the war is the most striking expression. The totalitarian character of the war, the needs of the Administration in prosecuting it, tend to make more acute the parliamentary crisis. At no time has Congress actually directed a war involving the United States, but at no time was it so lowly regarded by an Administration. This is a sign of the times.

The recent Roosevelt message ordering Congress to act on his seven-point program of last April or face a presidential decree enforcing such a program above the heads of the Senate and House, accentuated the Administration-congressional conflict. Roosevelt said: You pass legislation by October 1 concretizing my program or I shall do so myself. Was anything more contemptuous of Congress ever uttered? This demand by the President was a reflection of the extreme urgency of the war, but it was also the reflection of the unmistakable totalitarian direction which the state is taking.

Roosevelt is completely aware of the meaning of his ultimatum. He referred specifically to the dictatorial nature of his demand by stating that the war made inevitable authoritarian actions, but he was giving his personal guarantee that when the war had reached its successful conclusion, the democratic rights of the people would revert to them. Yet the most dangerous significance of the President’s request for authoritarian control of the most decisive domestic program he has ever presented is to be found in the manner in which the “liberals” and professional democrats have acclaimed his action. This is a symptom of the times. In their minds, Roosevelt’s order to Congress, while not strictly democratic in content and aim, is nevertheless to be acclaimed for its purpose: gearing the country toward a more efficient prosecution of the war. And since they are in accord with the war and its aims they applaud every action taken by the Administration, no matter how undemocratic it may be so long as it serves war aims. Thus the “liberal” world becomes party to the indicated totalitarian drift of the present war Administration.

Totalitarian Dangers and Labor’s Awakening

Few writers who commented on the President’s speech understood is fundamental import. Raymond Clapper, one of the more astute political writers, grasped its essential meaning. In his syndicated article of September 25 entitled Listen, Congress, he warns Congress that unless its met the demands of the time, “we are in the danger of going over to dictatorship.” To give emphasis to his warning, he adds: “I don’t mean the temporary, quasi-dictatorship that war always brings to a brief life. I mean dictatorship, period.”

There is a concurrence of events which makes this likely: totalitarian war which influences the economic, political and social life of the country; the complete domination over the war economy by big business, which would like nothing better than a totalitarian regime to strengthen its present domination, and most important, the absence of the only genuine democratic instrument which could fight the encroachments of dictatorship, an independent, courageous and militant party of the workers – a labor party – as the first organization of a politically awakening American proletariat. Such a party, representing the best interests of American labor, of the poor farmers, of a devastated middle class, is an urgent need.

This is the real task of the day, for the breaking away of the American workers from dependency upon the political parties of the economic ruling class would weaken the political rule of reaction, strengthen the progressive political tendencies of American labor and hasten the development of the mass movement for socialism.

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