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Susan Green

Washington Muddle Proves Need for Action:

Save the Rent Ceilings!

(10 February 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 6, 10 February 1947, p. 1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

By a hair’s breadth the sixty million tenants under rent control escaped a ten per cent rent increase Wednesday, January 29. The mimeograph machine was turning out the announcements for local OPA offices, reporters were assembled in the Office of Temporary Controls for the rent boost to be made public, there were only a few minutes to go – when the President “turned a somersault in full public view,” as the Washington Memo of the New York Post put if.

Since then there has developed a whodunit mystery much better than the Hollywood or radio concoctions. For here we have a double-edged mystery. Who was responsible for the order that would have boosted rents across the board? Who pushed President Truman to the wail to rescind the order?

The suspects for the original crime are President Truman and his two close advisers, John R. Steelman and Clark Clifford; Major General Philip Fleming, director of OTC, and his deputy, James Fullin; AND the real estate lobby. Suspected of responsibility for the President’s somersault are Philip Murray, the labor movement, the veterans, and the tenants, sixty million strong. Let us assemble the evidence.

On Whose Orders?

James Fullin, deputy director of the Office of Temporary Controls, to which OPA is now subordinated, was in charge; Director Fleming was away attending his mother’s funeral. Fullin is notorious as a real estate lobbyist, first working in the usual way from without and then getting himself a place for effective boring from within the government. Fullin bored for an across-the-board raise and for the end of all rent control. However, it is fantastic to suppose for a moment that Fullin took advantage of his chief’s absence to raise rents on his own hook. That would have been political suicide. The order came from higher up.

Director Fleming appeared before the Senate Banking and Commerce Committee, on his return to Washington, and took upon himself full responsibility for the hot order. He testified that before he left Washington for his mother’s funeral he instructed Fullin about the ten per cent boost. Asked by the committee why he decided to lift ceilings against the President’s known opposition to a general rent increase, Fleming lamely answered that he didn’t know the President had expressed himself. Fleming’s remarks were extremely contradictory. While he took the rap for the proposed ten per cent rent boost, he kept arguing for continuation of rent control “substantially in its present form” to June 30, 1948. Chairman Tobey of the committee slyly commented: “He who submits against his will is of the same opinion still.”

The fact that Truman hastened to inform reporters that he will not “penalize” Fleming and praised Fleming as one of the ablest men in the government, indicates that Fleming did not act on his own. Reports from Washington tell of a cabinet meeting on January 31, resulting in a huddle among Fleming, Steelman, Clifford and Fullin, where it was decided that Fleming is the logical one to stick his neck out, to take responsibility. Fleming stands accused of duplicity on the rent issue for, while advocating continuation of rent control in its present form, he actually is for breaking rent ceilings by allowing rent boosts to landlords on any one of twelve counts. However, he alone is not the author of the crime under investigation.

Man-behind-the-scene Clark Clifford, presidential adviser about whom not much has been said in this mix-up, was at first honored by some Washington reports with authorship of the rent decision. It was said that he prevailed on the President to retreat from his so-called hold-the-line rent policy for reasons of “political expediency.” Did he think perhaps that because the Republicans had introduced a bill for a fifteen per cent rent hike, a ten per cent increase from the White House would be interpreted by sixty million tenants as a present of five per cent? At any rate, Clifford was supposed to have influenced both Truman and Steelman, but then Clifford’s name was dropped from the newspapers and Steelman’s took the headlines.

Steelman’s Word

So far we have only Steelman’s own word for it that he did not issue the order. Press Secretary Ross of the White House told reporters that Dr. Steelman informed him that the statement that he, Steelman, ordered the ten per cent rent increase and was overruled by the President, is “both untrue and absurd.” However, a spokesman for a national real estate lobby, George M. Englar, revealed before the Senate committee that he had conferred with “individuals in high places” and “felt we had made an impression.” Pressed to be more specific, Mr. Englar named Dr. Steelman.

Earlier in his testimony he had said that his conversations with top-ranking officials had led him to believe that an across-the-board hike was in the cards. Steelman has some explaining to do. Against him is also the fact that Philip Murray was given the brush-off on that eventful Wednesday afternoon when he tried to speak to Steelman on the phone to get the score on the thickening rumors running the Washington rounds. Isn’t Steelman supposed to be one of those “friends of labor”?

Whether or not Steelman made commitments to the realtors, one thing is certain: No step of such political importance would have been taken without the President’s approval. It must be remembered that only ten days before that Wednesday the President had made public his rent policy, which he said was to hold the line – brushing aside the small item that 25,000 individual rent increases were being granted each month and the other negligible fact that Director Fleming had the presidential okay to extend the policy of individual rent boosts. At any rate, the President did not then favor an across-the-board hike. It is also known that the President had been in constant conference with Fleming and Steelman on the rent issue. Hard as it is for the President to admit to another major fumble, the Truman style of political faux pas is too much in evidence to be overlooked.

Truman and the Lobby

What made Truman consent to the ten per cent rent boost? Perhaps he was persuaded to believe that it would be too cumbersome to carry out the government policy of allowing rent boosts to landlords claiming “hardship” on twelve counts, and that a ten per cent across-the-board boost would be more practical. Or maybe the underlying argument used by those influencing the President was that the public: “expects” a rent boost and that since the Republicans were out for a fifteen per cent rise, the administration’s ten per cent would be considered “moderate.” Whatever arguments and whatever arguers prevailed on the President, the powerful real estate lobby pressuring against rent ceilings and rent controls is the power behind them all.

So arrogant has this lobby become that the same Englar mentioned above, president of the National Apartment Owners Association, very bluntly told the Senate committee that landlords are withholding thousands of apartments to protest against rent controls. “Thousands of units throughout the country are now on strike,” he testified. So closely identified with government officials is this lobby that not only is the deputy director of the Office of Temporary Controls its unofficial representative, but prominent legislators, namely, Senator Hawkes, Republican of New Jersey, and Senator Brucker, Republican of Ohio, have joined the National House and Property Owners Association, one of the major lobbies. Like the “brain” in the whodunits, the real estate business is the big boss.

Once having been convinced by the supporters of a ten per cent boost, why did the President stop the mimeograph machines at the eleventh hour – or was it fifty-ninth minute? The Washington Memo in the New York Post of January 30 had this to say:

“The real story is that Harry S. Truman sadly and suddenly sensed the impact of the approaching announcement. The advance news stories heightened Mr. Truman’s perceptions. He changed his mind only a few minutes after OPA had sent the grim word to its regional offices. He stopped the mimeograph machine, while reporters crowded the OTC press room. He turned a somersault in full public view. He left Clifford and Company perched on a limb overlooking the White House.”

Mr. Truman’s “perceptions” were ’heightened not only by advance news stories, for some of which leaks the CIO is credited, but also it seems by a letter that Philip Murray dispatched to the White House at 3:10 that Wednesday afternoon after getting the brush-off by Steelman.

It is reported that Murray wrote to the President from the CIO Washington office, warning Truman that a general rent rise would menace the “prospect for industrial peace.” Then it seems Mr. Truman peeped around the corpulent bellies of the realtors and saw enraged labor squeezed by high prices and low wages, homeless veterans demanding a better break, sixty million protesting tenants – and an election in 1948!

Thus far the above is all that can be reported about the rent mix-up. One unidentified government official let drop the comment that “when the whole story finally comes out it will look terrible.” When that story breaks, Labor Action will advise its readers.

In the meantime a few things need comment:

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