What is primarily remembered in history in terms of ideological Congressional investigations is the post-World War II “red scare”, but what is often forgotten or ignored are similar crusades against the right by New Deal supporters. In the 1948 election, Harry S. Truman won his bid for a full term in office and the Democrats regained their majorities in the House and Senate. Spooked by their brief loss of legislative power after the 1946 midterms and bolstered by President Truman’s condemnation of lobbying, the Democrats and unions were eager to not have a resurgence in conservative power. Their eagerness was manifested through Rep. Frank Buchanan (D-Penn.), who wanted to investigate the funding of opponents of the New Deal.
In 1949, Congress authorized the U.S. Select Committee on Lobbying, also known as the “Buchanan Committee” to investigate three targets, which Buchanan subpoenaed: Edward Rumely’s Committee for Constitutional Government, Merwin K. Hart’s National Economic Council, and Joseph P. Kamp’s Constitutional Educational League. In an effort to ideologically balance out the committee’s activities William L. Patterson of the Civil Rights Congress (an organization identified by the Justice Department as subversive) was called up as well. Buchanan had a special axe to grind against Rumely: he had successfully pushed Congress to kill a public housing bill the year before, a key issue he had supported. Rumely also had gained the ire of New Dealers by coining the term “court packing plan” and had been successful in rallying up public opposition to the plan. The Buchanan Committee wanted to ascertain who the financial backers of these organizations were and what’s more, who bought their books. In the case of Rumely specifically, the committee wanted to know who had purchased John T. Flynn’s The Road Ahead: America’s Creeping Revolution (1949), a book that claimed that left-wing pressure groups were pushing the U.S. to socialism through incremental change (Beito & Witcher, 56). Buchanan justified his committee’s actions as an effort to make the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946 “clear and effective” (CQ Almanac 1950).
(Edward Rumely at a Senate hearing, 1938)
Rumely and Patterson refused to provide the lists of their buyers, holding it as a violation of the First Amendment, and Kamp was unsure what the committee wanted from him. Congress subsequently voted to cite the three for contempt. The opponents of the contempt citations were conservatives, yet there were some interesting dynamics occurring in the votes. Vito Marcantonio (ALP-N.Y.), a pro-communist politician I covered in an earlier post, opposed contempt citations for both Rumely and Patterson, citing the First Amendment. In the case of Patterson, only one Democrat, Wingate Lucas of Texas, voted against the contempt citation while most Republicans stayed opposed. The fact that he was a black communist resulted in all but one of the Southern Democrats who had voted against contempt citations for Rumely to support citing him even though both cases were otherwise identical, a clear-cut case of identity politics.
After their contempt citations, Rumely was convicted and given a six-month suspended sentence, which he appealed to the Supreme Court. His conviction was overturned 7-0, with the Supreme Court finding the committee lacked the legal authority to procure the names of his buyers and cited the First Amendment. The court stated, “If the present inquiry were sanctioned a publisher would be compelled to register as a lobbyist with the federal government, would be subjected to harassing inquiries. A requirement that a publisher disclose the identity of those who buy his books, pamphlets or papers is indeed the beginning of surveillance of the press” (Beito, 2011). The case, known as U.S. v. Rumely (1953), is a significant precedent that was employed in the defenses of McCarthy targets Owen Lattimore and Corliss Lamont, as well as by the Alabama NAACP when the state was trying to put them out of business.
Beito, D.T. (2011, 24 February). The Day FEE Was Called Before Congress. Foundation for Economic Education.
Beito, D.T., & Witcher, M.M. (2016). “New Deal Witch Hunt”: The Buchanan Committee Investigation of the Committee for Constitutional Government. The Independent Review, 21(1).
“H Res 834. Resolution Certifying the Report of the Select Committee on Lobbying Activities as to the Refusal of Edward Rumely to Answer Questions & Produce Documents Before Said Committee”. Govtrack.
Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/81-1950/h249
“H Res 835. Resolution Certifying the Report of the Select Committee on Lobbying Activities as to the Refusal of William Patterson to Answer Questions & Produce Documents Before Said Committee”. Govtrack.
Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/81-1950/h250
“H Res 836. Resolution Certifying the Report of the Select Committee on Lobbying Activities as to the Refusal of Joseph Kamp to Answer Questions & Produce Documents Before Said Committee”. Govtrack.
Retrieved from https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/81-1950/h251
“Lobby Investigation”. (1951). CQ Almanac 1950. Washington D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.