July 20, 2015

Today’s legislators often speak of the Eisenhower era as an almost magical time when selfless Congressmen and Senators put the needs of the nation before partisanship or personal interest. This week’s ETW Document of the Week shows that there was more partisanship in the mid-1950s, even on so-called non-partisan issues like infrastructure, than is generally remembered.

Straight from the files of then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (in the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas) comes the April 1955 Democratic National Committee opposition research paper responding to President Eisenhower’s proposal to finance the Interstate system (a.k.a. the Clay Commission report).

The DNC’s paper accuses the Eisenhower Interstate plan of the following heresies:

  • Exaggerating the real dollar amount of funding provided by the bill for political benefit.
  • Borrowing too much money at too high an interest rate.
  • Establishing an off-budget government-sponsored corporation to evade the debt ceiling.
  • Dedicating excise tax revenues to an off-budget federal corporation in a way that GAO suggested might be unconstitutional.
  • Allowing “indefinite appropriations” for the Interstate system.
  • Depriving Congress of the opportunity to exercise periodic budget control over the highway program through the authorization and appropriations processes.
  • Placing an “undue emphasis on the interstate system to the detriment of other parts of the highway system.”

DNC chairman Paul Butler’s paper contrasted Eisenhower’s plan with a different Interstate plan offered by Sen. Albert Gore, Sr. (D-TN) that would have perpetuated the existing general revenue financing of the highway program with somewhat increased authorizations for the Interstate system – and had no tax increases. During debate in April 1955, the Senate defeated the Eisenhower/Clay plan by a vote of 31 to 60 (the only Democratic “yes” vote was John F. Kennedy (D-MA)) and then passed the competing Gore bill by voice vote. 

But the House of Representatives considered a different bill authored by Rep. George Fallon (D-MD) that contained significant tax increases dedicated to the general fund to support increased Interstate spending. After again voting down the Eisenhower/Clay plan by a mostly party-line vote of 193 to 221, the House unexpectedly voted down the underlying Fallon bill as well by a lopsided vote of 123 to 292. Congress then adjourned for the year leaving the highway bill unfinished.

However, Congress would return the following year and strike a bipartisan compromise on a bill that raised taxes (in a slightly different mix than the Fallon bill had)  but dedicated them not to the general fund but instead to a new Highway Trust Fund. 

(For more information on the 1955 highway debate, see FHWA historian Richard Weingroff’s excellent article here.)