Overman Act

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In 1918 the Overman Act was passed by Congress, in the midst of World War I (19141918). It gave President Woodrow Wilson (19131921) power to coordinate government agencies for the war effort. The legislation was sponsored by Democratic Senator Lee Slater Overman (18541930) of North Carolina.

The emergency powers of the executive office have, at times, been a controversial issue in the political life of the nation. A 1973 Senate report on the subject explained that "American political theory of emergency government was derived . . . from John Locke (16321704), the English politicalphilosopher whose thought influenced the authors of the Constitution (who) argued that the threat of national crisis unforeseen, sudden, and potentially catastrophic required the creation of broad executive emergency powers." Locke reasoned that since the lawmaking power (Congress) is not always assembled and it is "too numerous, and so too slow" in dispatching procedures and remedies, latitude must be given to the executive power during times of national emergency. The Senate report described Wilson as the "model for future Presidents and their advisors." While the urgent and pressing matters of the war required Wilson to expand his authority, he also sought congressional approval for his actions.

President Wilson was reluctant to become involved in the war in Europe. However, after German attacks on the American merchant marine in 1917, he resigned himself to U.S. engagement in the conflict. On April 2 Wilson made a special trip to the Capitol where he addressed Congress. He asked them to declare war, saying, "the world must be made safe for democracy." Congress met the pronouncement with applause and on April 6 it passed a joint resolution declaring war on Germany. Wilson immediately mobilized for the fight, organizing a variety of defense and war agencies. In 1917 he set up the War Industries Board but Republicans in Congress pressed for the establishment of a war cabinet instead. Wilson pressed back by asking the lawmakers to grant him comprehensive economic power. These powers were conferred upon the president by the Overman Act, passed April 1918. By that time Wilson had already given the War Industries Board broad authority, but congressional approval was, nevertheless, critical in unifying government during wartime. When the fighting was over (Germany surrendered to the Allies in November 1918), President Wilson promptly relinquished his emergency powers and asked Congress to repeal the wartime emergency statutes, which it did.