Howard W. Smith: The Great Obstructionist

People from both parties can complain about those who don’t vote with their interests often enough, but as I’ve covered before, in the past there was far more reason for partisans to complain than now. For Democrats, one of these reasons was a single member of Congress, Howard W. Smith (1883-1976) of Virginia.

Elected to Congress in the wake of the Great Depression in 1930, Smith, like most Democrats, was at least initially friendly to the New Deal. However, he was never enthusiastic about progressive policies and by 1935 he was starting to turn against it, as evidenced by his votes against work relief bills and other key New Deal measures. In 1937, he played a leading role in blocking a wage and hour bill, delaying it until 1938. By 1939, Smith, a member of the powerful Rules Committee, was a key member of the Democratic part of the Conservative Coalition.

In 1940, Congress passed and President Roosevelt signed into law his bill, the Smith Act. This criminalized advocating for the violent overthrow of the United States and was clearly aimed at the Communist Party. Smith, as did many other Southerners, fought civil rights legislation and was one of the leaders of the opposition to the 1937 Gavagan-Wagner Anti-Lynching bill. He also led the way on legislation to restrict the power and influence of labor unions, which he thought had grown too strong under Roosevelt, especially the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Smith accused the Roosevelt Administration of favoritism to the CIO and held hearings on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 1940. Although Smith managed to get legislation passed in the House to alter the NLRB that year, the Roosevelt Administration was able to persuade the Senate to kill it while changing the composition of the board to placate him and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In 1943, with Senator Tom Connally (D-Texas) he sponsored the War Labor Disputes Act to counter wartime strikes, which passed over President Roosevelt’s veto. Ironically, this act would first be invoked in stopping the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Employees Union sick-out strike, which was in response to the Fair Employment Practices Committee ordering the Philadelphia Transportation Company to hire black workers. FDR ended the strike by sending 6,000 troops to operate transportation and threatened striking workers with being drafted if they didn’t return to work in 48 hours.

Post-War Years

Although Smith initially cooperated somewhat with the Truman Administration, particularly during the 80th Congress, he became one of its strongest opponents on the Democratic side after the 1948 election. During the 80th Congress, he participated in the crafting of the Taft-Hartley Act, which in several respects weakened the Wagner Act of 1935 to restrict the power of unions. In 1952, he proposed using the Taft-Hartley injunction over a steel strike instead of President Truman’s action of taking over the steel plant. Although the Democrats temporarily lost control of Congress that year, the 1954 election brought them back and Smith was in line for the chairmanship of the Rules Committee. As chair, he worked with Republicans to block much of the Democratic Party planks, including policies on housing, labor, and education. He was commonly known as “Judge Smith”, referring to his position before serving in Congress. In 1957, Smith managed to kill a federal aid to education measure and he was also able to delay Alaska statehood by a year. He was also active in trying to block civil rights bills, and in one instance he cited a barn burning down on his farm to delay consideration.

Smith’s alliance with Minority Leader Charles Halleck (R-Ind.) starting in 1959 proved a great frustration to the national Democrats, so much so that in 1961, Speaker Sam Rayburn pushed for a curb on his power by adding three new members to the committee, two Democrats and one Republican. This measure was even officially backed by President Kennedy and ultimately narrowly passed. However, its impact was minor and in 1963 the House again passed a measure to expand the Rules Committee. This one was more successful as in this Congress some significant legislation passed, including a bill for aiding medical education, the Kennedy Tax Cut, the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Economic Opportunity Act, the latter which survived an attempt of Smith to kill it. He notably contributed to the Civil Rights Act in an odd way: he proposed covering sex as a protected class. Although some viewed the proposal as a joke to try to wreck the bill and many thought that he didn’t care about women’s rights, in truth he was supportive of women’s rights as he had supported the Equal Rights Amendment in the past and was an ally of Alice Paul. Smith would of course rather not have a Civil Rights Act at all, but if one was going to be passed no matter what he’d rather have sex as a protected class than not for white women. Accounts of this inclusion being an accident ignore a behind the scenes campaign for it by the NWP (National Women’s Party).

The number of liberals in the Great Society Congress was also too much for him to counter, and in his final term he was not effective in obstruction. What ultimately did him in politically was what he had tried to stop: civil rights. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 black voters could now effectively vote in the Democratic primaries in the South, and Smith was among the first segregationists to go. He was, at the age of 83, defeated in 1966 by the liberal George C. Rawlings Jr., who would lose the election to Republican William Scott.

Should Democrats feel the need to complain about people in their party not being committed enough, they ought to remember they have had it a LOT worse in the past given that Smith was not only more conservative than any Democrat serving in either chamber of Congress today but that he also served in a position with the power of life and death over legislation. 


Dierenfield, B. (2014, June 5). Howard W. Smith (1883-1976). Encyclopedia Virginia.

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McQuiston, J.T. (1976, October 4). Ex-Rep. Smith Dies at Home in Virginia. New York Times.

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Osterman, R. (2009). Origins of a Myth: Why Courts, Scholars, and the Public Think Title VII’s Ban on Sex Discrimination Was an Accident. Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, 20(409).

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