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"Clearly Vicious as a Matter of Policy": The Fight Against Federal-Aid

PART ONE: Unease in the Golden Age (Page 4 of 6)

The New President Calls for Action

Shortly after his inauguration on March 4, 1921, President Harding called for a special session of the 67th Congress to address the post-war depression that had lingered during the rough transition from war to peace. Early in April, advocates of a Federal Highway Commission met with the President. Roy D. Chapin, an early good roads advocate who was now president of the Hudson Motor Car Company and chair of the NACC good roads committee, headed the delegation. Chapin explained the delegation's opposition to continuation of Federal-aid and the BPR, which administered funds that greatly exceeded the entire budget of the remaining elements of the Department of Agriculture. A separate agency was the answer, Chapin told the President.

Chapin and his committee also met with MacDonald, Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace, and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon. The meeting prompted MacDonald to outline his position: "The task today is to provide highway service; we cannot afford to wait for the construction of new and modern types of highways." He also emphasized the importance of maintenance, saying, "The returns will more than compensate the cost."68

On April 12, the new President addressed a joint session of Congress. Biographer Francis Russell stated that, "The President looked vigorous, assured. His voice was not as precise as Wilson's, but it was warmer..." The contrast with the former President was clear. Wilson had suffered a debilitating stroke on October 3, 1919, while rallying public support for Senate approval of the League of Nations charter. He never fully recovered, physically or mentally, and was an invalid for the remainder of his second term, leading to suspicions about his capabilities and rumors that has wife had been the acting President. (His efforts were in vain because the Senate rejected United States membership in the League.)

President Harding's address to the joint session began:

Mr. Speaker, Vice President, and Members of the Congress, you have been called in extraordinary session to give your consideration to national problems far too pressing to be long neglected. We face our tasks of legislation and administration amid conditions as difficult as our Government has ever contemplated. Under our political system the people of the United States have charged the new Congress and the new administration with the solution - the readjustments, reconstruction, and restoration which must follow in the wake of war.

It may be regretted that we were so illy prepared for war's aftermath, so little made ready to return to the ways of peace, but we are not to be discouraged. Indeed, we must be the more firmly resolved to undertake our work with high hope, and invite every factor in our citizenship to join in the effort to find our normal, onward way again.

Turning to specifics, he began with "our problems at home, even though some phases of them are inseparably linked with our foreign relations." Russell summarized the domestic goals for the session:

As a message it was the expected declaration of Republican administration policy, containing no surprises. Harding called for a cutting of government expenditures, lowering of taxes, and the repeal of the excess-profits tax, "mature consideration" of permanent tariff legislation, a lowering of railroad rates and promotion of agriculture interests. One of his most important requests - several times rejected by earlier congressmen - was for the national budget system [i.e., to coordinate financial activities]. His most cherished projects were a "great merchant marine" and a Department of Public Welfare. There was applause, then silence when he told the legislators that "Congress ought to wipe out the stain of barbaric lynching."69

The President discussed several transportation issues, which he said were of "great interest to both the producer and consumer - indeed, all our industrial and commercial life, from agriculture to finance." After discussing problems related to the railroads, he turned to the highways:

Transportation over the highways is little less important [than rail transportation], but the problems relate to construction and development, and deserve your most earnest attention, because we are laying a foundation for a long time to come, and the creation is very difficult to visualize in its great possibility.

The highways are not only feeders for the railroads and afford relief from their local burdens, they are actually lines of motor traffic in interstate commerce. They are the smaller arteries of the larger portion of our commerce, and the motor car has become an indispensable instrument in our political, social, and industrial life.

There is begun a new era in highway construction, the outlay for which runs far into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Bond issues by road districts, counties, and States mount to enormous figures, and the country is facing such an outlay that it is vital that every effort be directed against wasted effort and unjustifiable expenditures.

The Federal Government can place no inhibition on the expenditure in the several States; but, since Congress has embarked upon a policy of assisting the States in highway improvement, wisely, I believe, it can assert a wholly becoming influence in shaping the road policy.

With the principle of Federal participation acceptably established, probably never to be abandoned, it is important to exert Federal influence in developing comprehensive plans looking to the promotion of commerce and apply our expenditures in the surest way to guarantee a public return for money expended.

Large Federal outlay demands a Federal voice in the program of expenditure. Congress can not justify a mere gift from the Federal purse to the several States, to be prorated among counties for road betterment. Such a course will invite abuses which it were better to guard against in the beginning.

The laws governing Federal aid should be amended and strengthened. The Federal agency of administration should be elevated to the importance and vested with authority comparable to the work before it. And Congress ought to prescribe conditions to Federal appropriations which will necessitate a consistent program of uniformity which will justify the Federal outlay.

I know of nothing more shocking than the millions of public funds wasted in improved highways, wasted because there is no policy of maintenance. The neglect is not universal, but it is very near it. There is nothing the Congress can do more effectively to end this shocking waste than condition all Federal aid on provisions for maintenance. [Applause.] Highways, no matter how generous the outlay for construction, can not be maintained without patrol and constant repair. Such conditions insisted upon in the grant of Federal aid will safeguard the public which pays and guard the Federal Government against political abuses which tend to defeat the very purposes for which we authorize Federal expenditure.70

Long-distance road advocates were initially encouraged by the message. The headline of an article in the May 1921 issue of American Motorist summed up the view: "President's Message to Congress Brings Cheer to Roads Advocates." The article began:

For the first time in many administrations, reaching back to the days of the Old Cumberland road, the subject of highways received real attention in a message to Congress, when President Harding, April 12, in person addressed the Sixty-seventh session.

Quoting extensively from the message, the article summarized:

It should be reasonable to assume that President Harding favors a Federal commission or board; a requirement that the State itself should function as such in roads [sic] building; and that no money from the national treasury should be expended upon any road for which upkeep is not definitely provided.

Since Senator Charles E. Townsend, chairman of the Senate Committee on Post-offices [sic] and Post Roads, has discussed good roads on various occasions with President Harding, who called him to the White House on the day before the delivery of the message, it is not difficult to understand why the highways section of the message accords in great degree with the opinions that have been expressed by the senior Senator from Michigan.

Engineering News-Record was impressed that the President had devoted more space to highways "than was ever before devoted to the subject in a Presidential address" and thought his statements were "sound wherever his meaning is not open to debate." As for the key issue, the magazine said:

It is difficult to know, however, just what the President's position is on a federal aid versus a "national" system of highways. We take it that he is satisfied to allow the present federal aid method of appropriation to stand. Yet there is enough indefiniteness about his words to wonder whether he has leanings in the other direction.

The ambiguity was in such phrases as "the laws governing federal aid should be amended and strengthened" and "the federal agency of administration should be elevated to the importance and vested with authority comparable to the work before it." The magazine asked:

The automobile interests have discussed with him the creation of a federal highway commission. Was that in his mind or has be some scheme of putting in more prominent place the present Bureau of Public Roads?

The magazine summarized the "considerable difference of opinion among highway officials" on this point:

Some think that this means that the Secretary of Agriculture should be given broader powers, some are of the opinion that the President had in mind the creation of a Department of Public Works, to which the Bureau of Roads would be transferred, while some admitted that it looks like an endorsement of a federal highway commission.

For now, all the magazine could say with certainty was that having the President express interest in the highway situation was "worth while." A later, clearer expression of his views was desirable.71

The Golden Mean

The 18-member legislative committee of AASHO, including Markham, met with the President and Secretary Wallace on April 14 to discuss their proposal. MacDonald had met with committee members to draft a legislative proposal that strengthened the essential features of the Federal-aid program, but reached out to those who supported a national highway system by limiting Federal funds to 7 percent of the Nation's roads, three-sevenths of which must be "interstate in character." The proposal required expenditures of at least 60 percent of the Federal-aid funds on the "interstate" roads. The maintenance requirement was strengthened. Funds for maintenance, as well as matching Federal-aid, must be under direct State control. Representative Cassius Dowell (R-Ia.) introduced the bill in the House of Representatives.

According to Fred White's account, the President and Secretary endorsed continuation of the Federal-aid highway program:

In April 1921 the Legislative Committee met with Mr. Markham in Washington and drew up a new Federal-aid road bill... The committee then met with the Secretary of Agriculture and secured his concurrence in the proposed bill. At the suggestion of the Secretary, the committee met with the President of the United States and presented its suggestions and program to him. To their delight the committee members found that the President's views were very largely in harmony with the measure which they had prepared.72

Markham recalled the meeting in his autobiography:

[We] found President Harding to be very much road-minded. He encouraged us to go ahead with our plans but very earnestly warned us that unless we placed a section in the law which required (with teeth) that the States must properly maintain the roads when once constructed with Federal aid, that he would veto the bill.73

Senator Townsend introduced a new version of his bill, one that accommodated Federal-aid, on April 29. The bill proposed establishment of a "post roads and federal highway commission" consisting of five members appointed by the President with Senate consent. The commission would establish an interstate system of highways following the most practicable routes. Agricultural, commercial, postal, and military needs would be considered in selecting the network. The State highway agencies would construct the system, but all contracts would be subject to the strengthened maintenance requirement. The bill authorized $200 million for a 2-year period, with the funds apportioned to the States.74

With the Dowell and Townsend bills in hand, Engineering News-Record provided a surprising analysis. It said the Dowell Bill, which had been reviewed by the President and the Secretary, "has been referred to as a golden mean between inadvisable extremes." The bill addressed many of the problems that had been cited in criticisms of the Federal-aid program:

The bill deserves unqualified support. It represents the best thought of an organization which recognizes that the great roadbuilding program of the future must be carried out on a sound economic basis... The new bill, giving increased control to the federal authorities, puts teeth in the original act and will insure the selection and construction and later the adequate maintenance of a system defensible upon economic lines.

The editorial added, "we do not wish to belittle the efforts of those who" sponsored the 1916 Act. "Imperfections were to be expected. There has been written into the new bill the lessons of experience."

The Townsend Bill, the magazine said, was a "very material step forward in composing the differences which exist regarding a proper federal highway policy." When a Federal Highway Commission had been proposed 3 years earlier "there was widespread dissatisfaction" with the existing program:

In the last two years, however, there has been a material change for the better, and highway officials throughout the country are thoroughly satisfied with the way the government highway activities have been administered.

As a result, the main reason the commission had been proposed "is now removed."

Another factor affected the magazine's assessment:

Moreover, there is growing up today in governmental circles a strong opposition to all of the "independent establishments," except those having judicial functions. In many quarters in Washington there is strong conviction that all of these independent establishments should be thrown into appropriate departments wherever administrative functions are involved.

Advocacy of the formation of a Federal Highway Commission at the present time, therefore, not only lacks the backing which circumstances gave to the proposal originally, but must meet with the strongly developed opposition to commissions and other establishments outside of the departments and reporting directly to the President.

Senator Smoot, the editorial continued, would soon hold hearings on reorganization of the government:

It will then become plain, we believe, that it is hopeless now to expect Congress to authorize any new independent establishments, such as the Federal Highway Commission would be.

Although the editor of the magazine had long supported establishment of the commission, the editorial on the new Townsend Bill concluded:

With the situation as it is, we have high hopes that Senator Townsend will abandon this feature of his proposed law. Should he do that there will then be entire agreement between the former opposing federal-aid and national-highway camps, and that in turn would assure an uninterrupted continuance of liberal federal support for highway development.75

Leaders of AAA, in town for their annual meeting, met with the President on May 17. American Motorist contained a lengthy article about the annual meeting and a photograph, spread over the top third of two facing pages, of the AAA officials and directors standing with the President outside the White House. However, the account of the meeting with the President "to express approval of his good roads policy" was brief:

Thoroughly enjoyable was the visit to the White House, for, let it be known, the President of the United States is a member of the A.A.A. through the fact that he belongs to the Marion County Automobile Club, which is a part of the Ohio State Association that is affiliated with the national body.

During the call at the Executive Mansion an invitation was extended to President Harding to dedicate the "zero milestone" to be erected on the District of Columbia meridian, near the White House, to establish the initial point of the highways of the United States radiating from Washington and to mark the starting place of the historic army motor convoys from Washington to San Francisco, by a northern route over the Lincoln Highway, and to Los Angeles, by a southern route over the Bankhead highway.76

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  1. "Want Federal Highway Commission Created," Engineering News-Record, April 14, 1921, p. 656.
  2. Russell, Francis, The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding and His Times, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968, p. 456.
  3. Congressional Record, April 12, 1921, p. 169-173.
  4. "President Harding on Highways" and "State Officials Confer on Highway Policies," Engineering News-Record, April 21, p. 687, 696.
  5. White, p. 13.
  6. Markham, p. 150.
  7. "Revised Townsend Road Bill Introduced," Engineering News-Record, May 5, 1921, p. 783.
  8. "New Federal-Aid Road Bill Calls for Highway Classification and State Systems," Engineering News-Record, April 28, 1921, p. 738, and "Getting Together on Federal Highway Policy," Engineering News-Record, May 12, 1921, p. 797.
  9. "White House Visit and Election of Diehl Mark 1921 A.A.A. Meeting," American Motorist, June 1921. President Harding presided over dedication of the Zero Milestone on June 4, 1923. Information on the Zero Milestone is available at https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/zero.cfm.
Updated: 06/27/2017
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