August 14, 2015

This week’s ETW Document of the Week is a series of internal memoranda from 50 years ago this month relating to the highway beautification agenda of the Johnson Administration. The beautification agenda was personally identified with the First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, to a degree that is still unusual for major legislation.

Although the debate was 50 years ago, much of it centered around a complaint that is still made today – the “diversion” of Highway Trust Fund spending from the original core mission of constructing highways and bridges to pay for other things. And the chairman of the Senate Public Works Committee proposed to solve the problem by doing something that was then unprecedented, but which has become commonplace today – simply transferring money from the general fund to the Trust Fund to pay for the new programs.

The following memos are included in one PDF document:

  • A memo from White House head legislative liaison Larry O’Brien to the First Lady dated July 30 explaining the four separate highway beautification bills that the White House had proposed to Congress, listing the Public Works Committee members she might contact, and explaining the effect of the bills on the Highway Trust Fund.
  • An August 3, 1965 memo from House Public Works chairman George Fallon (D-MD) to Speaker John McCormack summarizing his panel’s hearings on the beautification bills. Fallon closes his memo by emphasizing the financial burden that the legislation would place on the Trust Fund.
  • An August 3 memo to O’Brien from White House Senate liaison Mike Manatos explaining that Senate Public Works chairman Patrick McNamara (D-MI) wanted to transfer $600 million per year from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund to pay for the beautification program.
  • An August 5 memo from Manatos to the First Lady’s chief of staff Liz Carpenter explaining chairman McNamara’s position.
  • An August 11 memo to Manatos from Paul Southwick (the legislative liaison for the Secretary of Commerce) providing a cost estimate for the beautification program.
  • A fascinating memo from Manatos to O’Brien dated August 14 (50 years ago today!) explaining chairman McNamara’s evolving position, including McNamara’s problem with raising the gas tax: “He believes that when we have just taken excise taxes off diamonds, mink coats, and $15 bottles of perfume, we should not expect ‘the fellow driving to work in the morning’ to pay 4 cents per gallon beyond the completion of the Federal Aid Highway Program.”
  • An August 16 memo from O’Brien to the First Lady explaining the funding problem facing the beautification agenda.
  • An August 16 memo from Manatos to O’Brien recommending that the Administration support dedicating a portion of the then-existing federal excise tax on the sale of new automobiles to highway beautification.
  • An August 18 memo from Southwick to O’Brien forwarding a poll that Southwick had done for Commerce Secretary Connor of each member of the House and Senate Public Works Committees and their opinion on the beautification program.