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Legislative Reorganization Act

LEGISLATIVE REORGANIZATION ACT

LEGISLATIVE REORGANIZATION ACT (1946). This Act, also known as the Congressional Reorganization Act, was the most comprehensive reorganization of Congress in history to that date. The need to modernize the national legislature became evident during the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II. During those years of economic crisis and global war, the federal government took on vast new responsibilities—responsibilities that stretched to the breaking point the capacity of the national legislature, as it was then structured, to cope with a vastly increased workload. At the same time the power and prestige of Congress were rapidly eroding. During the depression and even more so during the war Congress delegated to the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt sweeping authority to implement legislation as he and his agents in the executive branch saw fit. In addition the war caused Congress a severe loss of prestige. Suddenly it seemed legislators became the whipping boys for all the pent up frustrations and anxieties of war. Some influential commentators charged that Congress's antiquated traditions, cumbersome procedures, and long delays in considering legislation rendered it incapable of meeting the needs of the modern world. The future, they said, rests with the president.

By the end of the war many legislators had concluded that the only way to recapture their lost stature was to reform the Congress. A key leader of the reform movement was the veteran Wisconsin senator Robert M. La Follette Jr., scion of Wisconsin's famous political dynasty. In 1945 he and Oklahoma representative A. S. "Mike" Monroney cochaired a joint committee of Congress to consider what might be done to make the body more efficient and effective. The following year the committee recommended sweeping reforms, and the committee's cochairs incorporated many of those reforms into a reorganization measure.

The key provisions of the measure proposed streamlining Congress's cumbersome committee system by reducing the number of standing committees and carefully defining their jurisdictions; upgrading staff support for legislators; strengthening congressional oversight of executive agencies; and establishing an elaborate procedure to put congressional spending and taxation policies on a more rational basis. The bill also required lobbyists to register with Congress and to file periodic reports of their activities.

Final passage was something of a tour de force for La Follette. Although practically all legislators wanted re-form of some sort, entrenched interests, especially among southern Democrats, resisted efforts to reform the existing committee system, which they dominated. Nevertheless, the measure passed by large margins in both houses with the key provisions more or less intact.

The Legislative Reorganization Act produced mixed results. Probably its greatest success was in equipping legislators and their committees with staffs of experts to help draft bills and analyze the complex issues that come before Congress. Legislative oversight of the executive branch also improved as a result of reorganization. In other areas reorganization fell short. The positive effects of reducing committee numbers was at least partly counterbalanced by the unexpected proliferation of subcommittees, which were not regulated in the act. Many lobbyists exploited loopholes in the act to avoid full compliance. The ambitious reform of the budget process failed to work and was abandoned after a couple of years. Above all the act failed to achieve its major objective. It slowed but did not reverse the flow of power and prestige from the legislative branch to the executive branch.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Davidson, Roger. "The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946." Legislative Studies Quarterly 15 (August 1990): 357–73.

Galloway, George B. The Legislative Process in Congress. New York: Crowell, 1953.

———. Congressional Reorganization Revisited. College Park: Bureau of Governmental Research, University of Maryland, 1956.

Maney, Patrick J. Young Bob: A Biography of Robert M. La Follette, Jr. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2002.

PatrickManey

See alsoCongress, United States .

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