The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942:
A New Deal Case Study

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Chapter 9
The Fight for Permanence

Scarcely had the CCC been established when individuals and groups began to discuss the possibility of its becoming a permanent federal agency. The secretary of the American Forestry Association, Ovid Butler, called as early as September, 1933, for a permanent organization, [1] and in November of that year the acting chief forester, C. M. Granger, asked regional foresters for their suggestions. [2] The President himself soon began to talk about a possible permanent organization, though on a smaller scale, [3] and by 1935 he was stating specifically that "these camps, in my judgment, are going to be a permanent part of the policy of the United States Government." [4] Indeed, by late 1935 the Forest Service even had a draft bill ready. [5]

It was in 1936, however, that plans for permanence began to take definite shape, and there are several reasons which explain this. First, the camps had obviously succeeded in their work and were firmly entrenched in popular favor. The climate of public opinion, therefore, was right for such a move. [6] Second, in accordance with the existing law, the CCC's activity would automatically terminate on March 31, 1937, unless congressional action assured its continuance. This seemed a fine opportunity, therefore, to propose legislation for permanence. [7] Third, investigation had indicated that there was enough conservation work to justify a permanent agency. Official surveys showed "that the annual work load ahead for a permanent CCC would increase rather than diminish during the next few years." [8] Finally, 1936 was an election year, and while the permanence of the CCC was never a major issue, it is possible, in view of the Corps' popularity, that Roosevelt's advocacy of it during the campaign redounded to his political benefit. [9]

In this expectant atmosphere the various co-operating bodies began to produce their own proposals for permanence, each one tending to reflect the particular interests of the agency concerned. The Forest Service, for example, wanted the existing organization of the Corps to be continued virtually intact, but with far greater emphasis laid on its conservation aspect. [10] The Office of Education, on the other hand, not altogether satisfied with what it had so far received, pressed for a radical and impractical restructuring of the whole CCC framework. Under its plan the Corps was to have two co-directors, one for work and one for recreation, the whole enterprise to be supervised by a federal board of educators. The role of the Army was to be severely limited, and enrollees were to be selected by state and local guidance councils. They would then go to one of two proposed camp types, depending on whether they were between seventeen and twenty years old or between twenty-one and twenty-four. The work program was to be an amalgam of physical labor, prescribed recreation, and education, with the emphasis laid on the third component. Enrollees, after identifying their educational needs, were to be dispatched to a camp of their choice. [11] The War Department had no detailed plans for permanence: it wanted out of the whole CCC arrangement. When it became clear that Roosevelt was opposed to this, the Army supported the Forest Service in advocating that the present organization be unchanged. [12]

As well as receiving detailed plans, Fechner, in accordance with the President's wishes, held informal discussions with the Advisory Council seeking further views on the best ways of approaching permanence. He was unpleasantly surprised to find that some took a cautious attitude. W. Frank Persons, in particular, while realizing that the imminent expiration of the original statute made some action inevitable, counseled against pressing for immediate permanence. Rather, he thought that the Corps should be continued on a temporary basis for another eighteen months, during which time the whole matter could be investigated thoroughly, alternatives could be considered, policy defined, and a well-rounded bill eventually presented to Congress. Hasty legislation, he believed, would surely be regretted. [13] Fechner, for his part, could see no reason for delay. He foresaw no congressional controversy whatsoever over the passage of the bill, as he considered that all political groups were "favorable to a permanent CCC organization. So far as I know, the Democrats certainly are, the Republicans certainly are, the Farmer-Laborites certainly are, and the Progressives—at least as exemplified by their present representatives in Congress. I do not know of a Congressman or Senator who is definitely opposed to the continuance of the CCC." [14] Fechner thought that Congress would back anything the Advisory Council recommended, and he strongly disapproved of any further holdup, yet he agreed to make known the views of Persons and his supporters to Roosevelt.

The President, however, paid little attention to the Advisory Council's opinions when Fechner brought them to his attention. He agreed with the Forest Service and War Department and decided to proceed immediately with a bill which would make the Corps permanent, but which would effect no change in administration. The Army, despite its protests, was to remain in charge of the camps, and the role of the technical services was to be unchanged. Camps were, however, to be reduced in number, the permanent CCC to employ no more than 300,000 youths in 1,456 camps. [15]

It was no surprise, therefore, when, in his annual budget message on January 7, 1937, President Roosevelt spoke on the future of the CCC. "The Civilian Conservation Corps has demonstrated its usefulness," he declared, "and has met with general public approval. It should be continued. I intend shortly to submit a supplemental estimate of appropriation to carry the Corps from March 31, 1937, to the end of the current fiscal year; and I strongly recommend that Congress enact during its present session the necessary legislation to establish the Corps as a permanent agency of the Government." [16] There was little comment in the leading newspapers on the proposal, and what there was predicted an easy passage for the measure. [17] Permanence for the CCC seemed destined to be a routine affair.

It was not until April 5, however, that the Administration moved further. In a message to Congress on that day, the President called for legislation creating a permanent CCC of 300,000 youths and veterans, together with 10,000 Indians and 5,000 enrollees in the territories and insular possessions. He justified his report by pointing to the "physical improvement" of forest land as a result of the Corps' activities, by warning of the need for much more of the same type of work, and by stressing "the improvement . . . in the moral and physical well-being of our citizens who have been enrolled in the Corps, and of their families." [18]

Apart from making the CCC an independent agency and transferring all Emergency Conservation Work records and property to it, the proposed bill did nothing more than perpetuate the organizational and administrative traditions that had been used and developed during the past four years. The offices and functions of the director and the Advisory Council were to be preserved, and the President was "authorized to utilize the services . . . of such departments or agencies of the Government as he may deem necessary for carrying out the purposes of this Act." He was also given the responsibility of deciding on rates of pay and allotments. Among the few significant changes in policy was the ruling that all Corps employees would henceforth come under Civil Service provisions. Those presently holding positions had to take a Civil Service Commission non-competitive examination within twelve months or lose their jobs. Moreover, the maximum number of enrollees was fixed at 300,000, including no more than 30,000 veterans. Enrollees were now to be between seventeen and twenty-three years of age and should "at the time of enrollment be unemployed and in needy circumstances." No relief provision was specifically mentioned. Despite these few alterations, the intention was clearly to depart as little as possible from the basic practices and traditions of the CCC as they had evolved in the past four years. [19]

The Senate Committee on Education and Labor held hearings on the measure on April 9 and 13, 1937. [20] The bulk of the time was spent questioning Fechner on the specifics of administration, work, and opportunity in the Corps. Little of significance was discussed and no controversial issues were raised. The only Republican committee member who attended, Senator James J. Davis of Pennsylvania, confined his questions to particular details concerning his home state and seemed in no way to dispute the need for a permanent CCC at this time. [21] Only Senator Elbert D. Thomas of Utah attempted to draw attention to any of the broader issues involved in the transfer to permanent status. He thought that the whole work relief concept of the Corps should be discarded, and that it should become a place of rehabilitation for socially deprived young men, whatever their financial status. Millionaires' sons probably needed training in social responsibility more than anyone else, he surmised. [22] For the most part, however, the hearing was a formality. Passage of the measure was probably fully expected.

Of more substance were the House hearings, held before the Committee on Labor on April 14 and 15, 1937. Several congressmen took exception to Fechner's apparent lack of emphasis on the educational aspects of the CCC life and to his refusal to permit the shortening of the work day to allow more classes. Representative Albert Thomas, Democrat of Texas, opposed the lack of compulsory education in the camps and said that on-the-job training was insufficient. He claimed that the Corps merely took boys off relief and eventually discharged them without having given them much of long-term value. [23] A permanent CCC, he asserted, should have a wider educative function. Representative Glen Griswold, Democrat of Indiana, also advocated compulsory education, disagreeing with Fechner's insistence that the two principal objectives of the Corps were relief of unemployment and the accomplishment of useful work. [24] Congressman James J. Scrugham, Democrat of Nevada, took issue with the clause limiting enrolment to 300,000 youths. He considered 350,000 to be an absolute minimum figure in view of the unemployment rate and the amount of conservation work yet to be done. [25] He was supported by Representative Walter M. Pierce, Democrat of Oregon, who contended that "the WPA money has not been nearly as successful or profitably spent" as the CCC appropriation. To cut the best of all the Administration's relief projects was indefensible. [26] There was, however, no serious opposition to the intent of the measure, with Republican committee members limiting their collective contribution to a few specific questions. The bill was reported favorably on April 21. Any serious criticism would now have to take place on the floor of the House; and though a group of House Democrats had indicated their dissatisfaction at the reduction of enrolment to 300,000, the prospects for passage were still excellent. [27] When the measure received an early clearance from the Rules Committee on May 3, a permanent CCC seemed only a matter of time. [28]

The House, acting as the Committee of the Whole, debated the measure on May 11, 1937. It was soon apparent that virtually no one wanted to end the CCC. What was surprising, however, and alarming to Administration leaders, was the strength of bipartisan support for a proposal that the Corps be extended for two years only. Announcing that he intended to offer an amendment to this effect, the House Minority leader, Representative Bertrand H. Snell of New York, while praising the good work of the Corps, declared he was "not ready to say that the U.S. will never again be able to take care of its boys from 17 to 25 years of age without putting them in the CCC camps." [29] Democrats who spoke early supported this point of view: they warned against hasty legislation and advocated a two-year extension period while the whole question of the role of a permanent CCC in American life was more thoroughly explored. [30] The Democratic leaders in the House soon realized, to their surprise, that all their skill would be required to keep the measure out of trouble.

The Administration's view was presented by Representative William P. Connery, who had introduced the bill, and Representative Jennings Randolph, Democrat of West Virginia. They rested their case on twin arguments of the Corps' popularity and proven worth, emphasizing that the President clearly desired that the measure should pass. [31] Randolph cited a recent public opinion poll which indicated that 87 per cent of all Americans, including a majority of registered Republicans, favored the Corps, and he dwelt on its success in building "not only better land, but better men." [32] These arguments were beside the point since few congressmen, Republican or Democrat, denied that the Corps had been anything but a success, and most of them wanted it to be continued. [33] Rather, the relevant issue was whether hasty legislation was warranted or whether an extension period of two years, during which time a thorough investigation of all aspects of the Corps could be made, would be a better way of insuring continuance. Moreover, the argument that the President wanted the bill passed intact was not calculated to overly impress congressmen, who were already sorely troubled and divided by his strong backing of the controversial Supreme Court reform plan. [34] They had had enough of presidential pressure for one session.

There were several other specific objections to the Administration's measure, some of which had been explored previously at the hearings. Representative Arthur B. Jenks, Republican of New Hampshire, favored the bill but wanted provision made for ten hours of vocational training, to be taken out of the working hours. He was supported by Representative Arthur H. Greenwood, Democrat of Indiana. [35] Representative Randolph felt that the enrolment limit of 300,000 was too low and personally preferred a minimum of 350,000. [36] Representative Jack Nichols, Democrat of Oklahoma, pointed out that the Civil Service provision would mean the end of a good source of patronage for Democrats and accordingly he proposed that it be removed. [37] The bill as it stood was seriously in trouble, though the success of the CCC was never the point at issue.

Connery, probably sensing failure, made a strong plea for passage of the Administration's measure. Pointing out that Congress could abolish the CCC at any time, permanent or not, he stressed that "this is the pet project of the President of the United States; it is his baby if you please . . . he has asked it be made permanent." Snell immediately ridiculed him for insisting that the measure be passed "because it is the pet project of the President." It was, he asserted, a poor excuse for doing a foolish thing: the wisest policy was to extend the CCC for two years, then see if the need for permanence still existed. [38] Possibly to forestall a Republican move to this effect, Representative Fritz G. Lanham, Democrat of Texas, offered an amendment continuing the provision of the existing act for two more years, "till we can better know under what conditions it should be made permanent. It is an emergency measure," he said, and to make it permanent now would be to take a pessimistic view and admit that the emergency would never end. [39]

Democrats supported the Lanham Amendment strongly. Representative Samuel Hobbs of Alabama believed the CCC was one of the "most splendid accomplishments of the New Deal" but that the proposed permanency bill was "hopelessly unconstitutional" in its unauthorized delegation of power to the director and to the President. Others spoke on similar lines and the Lanham Amendment passed the Committee of the Whole by 224 to 34. [40] The committee then further amended the Administration's bill. Educational and vocational training was made compulsory. [41] The Civil Service provision was removed, thus safeguarding congressional patronage; [42] and, unexpectedly, the committee voted to cut Fechner's salary from $12,000 to $10,000. [43] The relief provision, as it affected enrolment, was reinserted. [44]

On the following day, May 12, the House confirmed the amendments of the Committee of the Whole and then voted on the passage of the bill, which now extended the Corps for two years only. The measure was passed by the huge margin of 389 to 7, only two Democrats and five Republicans voting against it. [45] Nevertheless, the Administration's measure had been altered in its essentials. The CCC, though now independent, was not yet permanent.

Many newspapers interpreted the passage of the Lanham Amendment not as an expression of lack of confidence in the CCC but as a blow struck for congressional independence. The New York Times described it as "the largest Democratic defection in years," and thoroughly approved of the House's action. [46] The Chicago Tribune called the defeat the "most drastic since Roosevelt took office," but pointed out that "the merits of the CCC were not at issue" and that its success was beyond question. Nevertheless, the Tribune thought that, given the present trend to concentration of power in the presidency, a permanent CCC could have become "An American Black Shirt or Brown Shirt Army, a political agency dangerous to the Republic," and for this reason the paper supported temporary extension only. [47] Both the Boston Evening Transcript and the Baltimore Sun interpreted the action as a serious setback for the President. [48] The St. Louis Post-Dispatch regretted the defeat while asserting that, though not yet permanent, "the CCC would remain a useful agency for giving young men healthful and morale-building work." [49]

Fechner had assumed that the debate would have been a formality only, and he was dismayed by the House's action. Bewildered and enraged, he threatened to resign. "I am ready to go back to the Machinists tomorrow," he stormed, "and when I come back from Alaska I may do that. I cannot understand how Congress ran away with this thing yesterday afternoon. There has been no opposition [to permanence] in the hearings." [50] The President, on the other hand, outwardly shrugged off the revolt. The refusal of the House to vote permanence was a minor point," he considered, "so long as the CCC was extended." Moreover, the Senate Committee on Education and Labor had reported favorably on the plan for permanence. There was little point in talking about defeat until after the senators had considered the amended House measure. [51] The fight was not yet over.

The Senate debated the House measure on May 19, after Senator Hugo L. Black of Alabama had explained the importance of the House amendments. [52] Much of the time was devoted to the question of Fechner's salary. Senators Tom Connally, Democrat of Texas, and Champ Clark, Democrat of Missouri, led a determined drive to sustain the House cut from $12,000 to $10,000. Connally claimed that $12,000 was more than a senator, or even Harry Hopkins, was paid; moreover, Fechner, he contended, was trying to influence the CCC enrollees politically, especially on the matter of Supreme Court reform. [53] He was successful in bringing the matter to an early vote, which went against the director by 44 to 29. [54]

On the larger issue of permanence for the Corps, the senators were much more inclined than the House to support the Administration. Though few went as far as Senator "Cotton Ed" Smith of South Carolina, who declared that the CCC was "the most marvellous piece of legislation that has been enacted during the present Administration, or any preceding one," [55] most were inclined to favor a permanent agency. Indeed, Senator Carl Hayden, Democrat of New Mexico, declared that he "would like to see a million young men a year going through the camps." [56]

Senator William E. Borah led the forces against permanence. He yielded to no one in his appreciation of the benefits the CCC had brought to boys, local communities, and the nation, but to make it permanent was, he insisted, to admit that America would always have an unemployment problem, and this he was not prepared to do. [57] Yet, his was distinctly the minority view: an amendment to extend the camps for only two years was soundly defeated. [58] The vote on the Black Amendment to substitute the original bill for the House measure was a one-sided affair. The amendment was carried by a huge majority of 67 to 2, with Borah the only Republican voting against it. Thus, the Republican senators voted with the Administration and against the action taken by the House. [59] An impasse had been reached.

The inevitable conference was held between the labor committees of the two chambers. When the results of their deliberations were reported on June 7, they showed that on the major issue the Senate conferees had capitulated to House intransigence. The Corps was not to be permanent, but would be extended for three, not two, years. Fechner's salary was to be cut. Enrolment would not be limited to youths from families receiving relief, but to all young men between seventeen and twenty-three years of age who were unemployed and in need of employment. It was anticipated that those to whom the relief provision actually applied would be given first preference. The peak enrolment was to be 300,000, including veterans and Indians. The Senate gained two major points when the conference agreed to remove the House's clause authorizing ten hours of vocational training per week, substituting the wording "training for citizenship," and to reinsert the Civil Service provision that those presently employed would be given time to study for the mandatory examination. [60]

These amendments were still too much for the House to accept. Congressmen demanded that the vocational training clause be reinserted and the Civil Service provision be once more removed, thus safeguarding their source of patronage. [61] To these further changes the senators agreed, so that when the President signed the bill on June 28, 1937, it represented a victory for the House over both Administration and Senate. [62] Roosevelt's bid to make the Corps permanent had failed.

The failure of the CCC to become permanent in 1937 is all the more significant because it was so unexpected. At the beginning of the year it had stood at the zenith of its great popularity, drawing support from all sections of the community. Most officials were certain that congressional approval for the President's plan would have been little more than a formal action. What then were the reasons for the President's defeat, a reversal perpetrated by the large-scale defection of members of his own party?

The first argument against permanence brought forward in the debates was that a permanent CCC would be a gesture of pessimism, a recognition of defeat in the war against unemployment. No doubt this point has a certain validity, though Congress could always have abolished the CCC, permanent or not, once the unemployment situation had improved. Moreover, the argument ignored the urgent need for more conservation work, independent of the employment situation. Similarly, to stress the need for further study of the Corps was to ignore the fact that the CCC had been under observation for four years, and if any defects had subsequently been discovered in the legislation for permanence, they could easily be removed by congressional action. The fact that a permanent CCC with Civil Service provisions attached would have meant the end of a useful source of congressional patronage was no doubt important and must have loomed large in many a congressman's mind. Likewise, the clause limiting enrolment to 300,000 would inevitably have meant the widespread closing of camps with the attendant local discontent. Nevertheless, it would have been possible to compromise on both these points and still make the CCC permanent. Of more substance, perhaps, was the feeling that the proposed legislation was somewhat hastily conceived, and that there had not been enough real consideration given to the future role of the CCC. The bill before Congress perpetuated almost intact the existing organization of the Corps, as well as its heavy emphasis on relief, and some congressmen were convinced that no proposal for permanence should be enacted until there had been much more discussion and reflection on just what broader functions a permanent agency could be expected to perform.

Probably just as important in explaining the defeat of the measure were the deep feelings of concern and uncertainty engendered in Congress and country by the President's Supreme Court reform plan. It is significant that the Corps itself was never under criticism. Democratic congressmen, however, may have sensed a need to affirm their independence after the trying early weeks of the session, when the court plan was bitterly debated and conscientiously opposed. There could hardly be a better way of protesting against what was considered to be the dangerous accretion of power by the Executive than to refuse to go along with the President on this issue, especially since the House Democratic leadership was making so much of the fact that the CCC was Roosevelt's "pet" and that he wanted the measure passed. To refuse this favor, while still extending the most popular New Deal agency, could well have been the House's way of reaffirming to President and people that it was not to be considered a rubber stamp.

The problem of Fechner's salary cut adds some substance to this hypothesis. Fechner had received since 1933 an annual salary of $12,000 without any criticism ever being uttered. Nothing at the hearings on the bill in April indicated that this amount was considered excessive; yet in May both Houses agreed that he should receive only $10,000 a year. Perhaps this reduction was due to an economy drive and a desire to bring his salary into line with those of congressmen and other federal officials, but it was probably reinforced by the fact that in the latter half of April, Fechner made a series of radio speeches in which he strongly advocated the adoption of the President's court reform plan. [63] For these he was publicly criticized by Senator Clark, who later injected the matter into the Senate debate on the director's salary. [64] Surely Fechner's pay cut can be explained in part by his support of court reform. Moreover the editorial support given the House's motion, while disavowing any intention of criticizing the CCC, nevertheless indicated that the time was not ripe for the creation of further permanent federal bodies. In adopting this view, even normally friendly editors were possibly reflecting the fear of further Executive encroachment which the court reform furor had created. [65] It seems reasonable, therefore, to conclude that the plan for a permanent CCC failed not only for the reasons adduced in the House but also because of the vague uneasiness against increasing federal power which had been engendered by the court-packing issue. Indeed, it may well have met a better fate had it been dealt with before the court plan was made known. In any event, 1937 was a bad year for President Roosevelt. The court reform bill was only one in a series of measures defeated in the House because of increased congressional independence. [66] Failure to make the CCC permanent must be considered within this context.

The fight for permanence was not over, though never again did it attain such significant proportions. The President still aimed at a permanent Corps, [67] and the American Conservation Association, a group of former enrollees and other interested parties, was formed specifically to agitate to this end. [68] In January 1939, bills were introduced into the House and Senate. Their main provisions, apart from permanence, were once more to include Corps employees within Civil Service provisions and to increase Fechner's salary to $12,000. There were no other changes from the 1937 legislation. [69] Work would continue, as previously, under the auspices of the director, but it would be directly carried out by the co-operating federal departments.

The House Committee on Labor held hearings in February. While support for the CCC was as strong as ever, and while no one wanted the camps discontinued, members expressed the usual reservations about making the Corps permanent. For example, Representative Richard J. Welsh, Republican of California, said he had always felt that the establishment of the CCC "is one of the most outstanding, if not the most outstanding, Administrative and Congressional accomplishment since the depression," but he was nevertheless "not sold" on the wisdom of making it permanent at this time. [70] Moreover, there was enough discussion concerning the need for military training in the camps to indicate that a new CCC Act could be held up while congressmen debated this contentious issue. [71] Both Fechner and Brigadier General George P. Tyner, who attended the hearing, spoke strongly against making formal military training part of the Corps' curriculum, Tyner insisting that the War Department considered it to be quite unnecessary and, if CCC boys alone were to receive such instruction, quite unfair. He thought that the present situation was of positive value, even without formal instruction, in that the enrollees were learning to accept Army discipline and camp life, while the Reserve officers in charge of the camps were gaining valuable experience in command techniques. In his view, formal military training would be superfluous. [72] In spite of the War Department's explicit disavowal of the need for military training, however, many congressmen remained committed to it as a prerequisite for the passage of a permanent CCC bill. [73] It was considered as well that the President's pending administrative reorganization plan might affect the CCC to such an extent that it would surely be better to study its provisions before discussing permanence. [74]

The report from the Committee on Labor to the House, therefore, did not advocate permanence for the CCC at this time. While pointing out that testimony before the committee had clearly shown that the Corps "operated effectively and efficiently," that its "social benefits" had been great, and that there remained much conservation work to be accomplished, the committee nevertheless recommended extension for five years only, from July, 1940. [75] It was considered too difficult at the time to study the unemployment situation and gauge its long-term implications, and until this was done it was deemed unwise to make the CCC permanent. This being the case, the committee decided it was better not to include the Civil Service provision nor to raise Fechner's salary. No mention was made of military training. [76]

Thus, the House Labor Committee, apart from increasing its time span, made no significant change in the act which had governed the Corps since 1937. Though the Senate Committee on Education and Labor favorably reported its bill to make the Corps permanent, [77] it was once more the House's decision which was followed. The House on July 31, 1939, by voice vote and without debate, extended the life of the Corps till July 1, 1943, but made no other changes in the bill of 1937. [78] The Senate followed suit the next day, [79] again without debate, and the President signed the measure on August 8, 1939. [80]

This was the final attempt to secure permanence for the CCC. It was but a pale echo of the 1937 campaign, arousing no press controversy or presidential statement, and provoking no congressional debate. The real fight for permanence had taken place two years previously, and the Administration had lost it. The significance of the CCC's failure to attain permanence should not, however, be overrated. Possibly large-scale planning was hindered, but this in itself was dependent on long-term budgeting, and nothing in the legislation indicated that Roosevelt intended to place CCC appropriations on such a footing. Since no change in structure was ever seriously planned, the failure of passage of these two bills meant very little. Indeed, it is hard to see how the CCC's future course could have been substantially different, even with permanence, so long as its organization, thrown together as it was in the Corps' first few frantic weeks and having slowly evolved a working equilibrium, remained unchanged.


The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942: A New Deal Case Study
salmond/chap9.htm — 03-Jan-2008

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