Truman and Transportation

August is the time for getting caught up on long-term projects, and this week marks the conclusion of my looks back at how Harry S. Truman’s Administration redefined what “transportation” means in terms of public policy. Does transportation mean just the activity, or does it also include the construction of the facilities on which transportation is conducted? And is a federal grant to a state or local government to do something the same as the federal government doing that thing directly?

Rather than put the final 11,000 words in this week’s issue of ETW and risk clogging your printers, we have published the full articles separately and are just putting the nutshell summary here.

(Part one of the series looked at federal organization of transportation pre-Truman.)

Part two of the series, published on April 9, 2019, told a never-bef0re-known story about just how close President Truman came to creating a Federal Transportation Agency in the spring of 1946 using power under the Reorganization Act. The plan, drafted by Bureau of the Budget transportation analyst Ernie Williams, would have moved the Civil Aeronautics Administration, Civil Aeronautics Board, Public Roads Administration, Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Commission, War Shipping Administration, inspection services of the Bureau of Marine Inspection Services, Inland Waterways Corporation, the Customs functions relating to undocumented vessels, and the Weather Bureau to the new FTA.

But Truman, for reasons unknown, decided at the last minute not to submit the plan to Congress, and there the issue died for the time being. (I suspect those reasons were related to the maritime portion of the plan, but the Truman Library, along with the rest of the National Archives, shut down before I could make my planned visit in March, so if I ever get there, I will try to find that out.)

However, Truman’s Budget Bureau also took an important step in framing transportation as a singular function of government. Before fiscal year 1948, the budget was divided up into eleven functional categories, and public works was one of those. Roads, airports, dams, courthouses, irrigation projects, public housing, even work on national monuments were all lumped together in one category for purposes of budget presentation.

Truman’s 1948 budget established the concept of budget functions and subfunctions still in use today, and broke up the old public works function. From then on, as that year’s Budget said, “‘Public works’ no longer appears as a separate category in the functional classification. Instead, public works are distributed among the functions which they serve.” The construction of airports was finally placed in the same budget subfunction as the operation of air traffic control facilities and the payment of subsidies to airlines, for example (“Promotion of aviation, including provision of airways and airports”).

Part three of the series, published on May 3, 2019, discussed the “Hoover Commission” appointed in mid-1947 to recommend all manner of changes in the organization of the executive branch of government. The Commission outsourced its initial research work to competing task forces, and the various task forces came to some very contradictory conclusions.

  • The Task Force on Transportation was outsourced to the Brookings Institution, which recommended a Cabinet-level Department of Transportation (which Brookings had been pushing since 1937), consisting of Public Roads, the CAA, the non-regulatory aspects of the CAB, USMC, and Interstate Commerce Commission, and the programming of river, harbor, and inland waterway improvements from the Army Corps of Engineers, with the Coast Guard and the Coast and Geodetic Survey also considered for inclusion. Brookings also recommended that what remained of the ICC, CAB and USMC as quasi-judicial regulatory bodies be combined into one independent Transport Regulatory Commission.
  • The Task Force on Public Works was headed by legendary New York builder Robert Moses, who recommended converting and expanding the Interior Department into a Department of Works. It would include a Division of Roads, Airports, Parks and Indian Affairs that would incorporate the Public Roads Administration, the airport grant program of the CAA, the Alaska Railroad, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A separate Division of Water Control and Development that would combine the Army Corps of Engineers water resources program with the Bureau of Reclamation, the Panama Canal, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the various regional hydropower administrations. Another Division of Housing and Buildings would combine all federal public housing programs with federal building programs. The Coast and Geodetic Survey would go to the Works Division of Planning.
  • The Task Force on Natural Resources, headed by former Wyoming Governor Leslie A. Miller, recommended that Interior be converted into a Department of Natural Resources, to include the Corps of Engineers water program but not the rest of what Moses would transfer to his Department of Works.
  • The Task Force on Independent Regulatory Commissions, chaired by Robert Bowie (and staffed by Ernie Williams and James McGregor Burns, among others) recommended that the ICC, CAB and USMC remain separate entities.

Part four of the series, published on August 21, 2020, explains how the Hoover Commission accepted the recommendations of some task forces and rejected others in coming to its own final recommendations to Congress and the President. Frustratingly, the Commission voted to stop taking verbatim transcripts of its meetings just before they made the pivotal decisions on a potential Department of Transportation, and then voted to resume taking verbatim transcripts the following day, so the transcript of the one meeting I wanted most to read is forever unavailable.

During that pivotal session, the Commission rejected its Task Force’s plan to create a DOT and instead recommended centralizing most transportation agencies under the Department of Commerce. (The fact that Herbert Hoover himself was a former Commerce Secretary, who had single-handedly made that backwater post into a worthwhile job by taking jurisdiction wherever he could, may have had something to do with the decision – if the transportation functions already in Commerce had been removed and given to a DOT, Commerce would have lost two-thirds of its budget and manpower.)

However, the article does give detail on how Robert Moses himself came to Washington to try and talk the Commission into his Public Works idea, how everybody wanted the Corps of Engineers (which did not want to be moved out of the Army), and how the Commission changed its mind on combining the ICC, CAB and USMC.

With regards to transportation, the Commission proposed to let Commerce keep all its existing components and would have transferred to Commerce the Public Roads Administration (from the Federal Works Agency), the Coast Guard (from the Treasury Department), the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, and the non-regulatory functions of the ICC, the CAB, and the Maritime Commission (as well as one non-transportation entity, the Commercial Fisheries Section of the Fish and Wildlife Service). All of the transportation-related components of the expanded Commerce Department would be organized into four modal divisions, each with a Director: Merchant Marine Activities, Aeronautics Activities, Public Roads Activities, and Road and Motor Safety. The four Directors would report to an Assistant Secretary for Transportation.

While the initial draft report recommended that the “purely regulatory transportation activities, such as regulation of competitive rates, be assigned to independent regulatory commissions,” the final report added a new caveat: “In order that there be coordination in the development and promotional fields, the Commission recommends that in the case of determining route patterns by any agency of the government that such patterns should be approved by the Secretary of Commerce. This is intended to apply to Merchant Marine routes, Highway routes, Railway routes, and Air routes.”

Part five of the series, published yesterday, discusses how Congress debated a bill creating a DOT in 1948, and how Congress fought over extending the Reorganization Act so Truman could implement some of the Hoover Commission’s plans. Truman did not propose all of the Commission’s recommendations, and the ones he did propose were sometimes amended (much to Hoover’s frustration).

The articles have excerpts from several private letters and conversations between Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman, including on the topic of creating a Department of Transportation and of getting the Corps of Engineers civil program out of the Army.

Moving Public Roads to Commerce was one of Truman’s initial recommendations, and the article describes the Senate floor debate where Sen. Carl Hayden (D-AZ) tried to get the Senate to veto the move. (He fell a few votes short – the resolution vetoing the move failed, 40 yeas to 47 nays.)

The following year, some of what Hoover recommended for Commerce was proposed by Truman – the Maritime Commission was broken up, with the non-regulatory and non-subsidy-determination functions becoming a new Maritime Administration within Commerce, and a new Under Secretary of Transportation was created – but Hoover was disappointed that the Coast Guard, NACA, and the safety and car service functions of the ICC were not moved under Commerce as well.

At a Senate hearing, opposition to the maritime move seemed much more broad-ranging than the previous year’s opposition to moving Public Roads, but when it came time to vote, the Senate again decided not to veto the reorganization plan, this time with only 14 yeas in favor of the veto, versus 59 Senators voting to let it take effect.

Still to come: future parts in this series will examine how tantalizingly close the Eisenhower Administration came to creating a Department of Transportation in its second term, based on heretofore-unseen documents from the Eisenhower Library.

Search Eno Transportation Weekly

Latest Issues

Happening on the Hill