Americans for Constitutional Action: The Forgotten Conservative Interest Group

ADM Ben Moreell
Admiral Ben Moreell, First chairman of Americans for Constitutional Action.

Although the 1950s often get looked back on with some reverence by conservatives for being a relatively calmer and more “family friendly” time than the decades that followed, it was a time of some disappointment for them. President Eisenhower was a moderate, the GOP was not nearly as gung-ho against New Deal measures as they were when Truman was president, and Southern Democrats too were proving less conservative than during the Truman years as well. On June 27, 1958, at the behest of a group of conservative senators, a new organization, Americans for Constitutional Action (ACA), was born to elect more constitutional conservatives. This was the conservative answer to Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal group founded in 1946 dedicated to preserving and expanding the New Deal. As I have written about before, the 1958 election proved calamitous for Republicans, with them losing thirteen seats, all to liberal Democrats. Democrats also gained two Senate seats with the admission of Alaska that year and in two cases retiring Republicans were replaced with more liberal ones. This set the stage for the politics of the 1960s.

ACA’s Mission

The ACA issued seven guidelines for which it based its index to judge members of Congress. These were, “For safeguarding the God-given dignity of the individual and promoting sound economic growth by strengthening constitutional government; for sound money and against inflation; for the private competitive market and against government interference; for local self-government and against central government intervention; for private ownership and against Government ownership; for individual liberty and against coercion; for National sovereignty” (Congressional Record). They also aimed to strengthen the Conservative Coalition, made up of Republicans and Southern Democrats. 

The ACA’s Start

Under the leadership of retired Admiral Ben Moreell, founder and former head of the Seabees construction battalions and chair of Jones & Laughlin Steel Co., this organization lobbied for these principles and for electing legislators of both parties who would do so. People who were on the organization’s Board of Trustees included former President Herbert Hoover, former Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison (yes, a son of Thomas!), Dwight Eisenhower’s older brother Edgar, John Wayne, and former Congressman Howard Buffett (Warren’s father). In 1960, they published their first ACA-Index, which covered for the Senate 77 votes from 1955-1959 and for the House 40 votes from 1957-1959. These were intended to influence conservatives for the 1960 election. This publication got some publicity when General Edwin A. Walker, under his mandatory “Pro-Blue” anti-communist program, got in trouble for calling former President Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson “definitely pink” in print, promoting conservative literature and the ACA-Index to troops under his command and telling them and their families to consult it before voting, a violation of the Hatch Act. He would resign the army after being admonished, being the only general to do so in the 20th century. The ACA was fearless in its selection of votes: there were years in which no senator would get a 100% because their standards were so high and they didn’t seem to care who voted for or against their position. They broadly opposed the New Frontier, the Great Society, foreign aid, farm subsidies, raising the debt limit, and major civil rights legislation. However, chair Moreell made it clear that they didn’t expect perfection: when the organization honored Congressman Bob Dole of Kansas with their Distinguished Service Award on May 25, 1965, Moreell stated, “The acceptance of this award does not mean you are in complete agreement with all of the measures advocated by ACA nor does it imply any commitment to support those measures in the future. ACA will never impugn the motives or question the probity of those who do not agree with our views” (Americans for Constitutional Action).

Issues They Considered And Didn’t

Americans for Constitutional Action had some interesting inclusions and exclusions for what they graded. During the 1950s they counted zero votes on final passage for mutual security bills while ADA consistently counted them. ACA counted some specific measures involving foreign aid and amendments increasing foreign aid though. They also didn’t count federal aid for education during the Eisenhower years, possibly because the issue of desegregation often got tied to them, resulting in a Southern Democrat voting bloc against. Yet, other measures regarding education they did count. For the Senate, they almost never counted the invoking of cloture to end debate and even declined to do so when they were the only Senate votes on the proposal to end the “right to work” provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act during the Great Society Congress. One of the most notable exclusions I’ve seen was the entire issue of abortion. ADA and ACU both counted abortion as an issue, but ACA repeatedly declined to do so. Maybe this was seen as a Catholic issue for them (as it is often seen abroad) or they failed to reach a consensus on whether they thought abortion ought to be seen as a matter government should be involved in. They were also late on covering proposals to limit the reach of the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, not opting to count it until 1975, whereas ACU started counting in 1972. The ACA system I think in many ways was a better one than both ADA and ACU. They counted each issue as a point (as opposed to double-counting most important ones), didn’t count absences against people, often were more comprehensive in their vote selection than either ACU or ADA, sometimes they counted some lower profile economic issues, and they were most insistent on coming out against subsidies and bailouts. They also far more regularly counted matters such as budget cuts than ADA did and were less heavy on social issues. Chairman Moreell ultimately hoped through its endorsements and active support for conservative candidates as well as these ratings to make the two parties ideologically responsible: Republicans being the solidly conservative party and the Democrats being the solidly liberal party.

The Slow Decline of ACA

The beginning of the fall of Americans for Constitutional Action came with the landslide victory of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. After that election, another conservative organization was founded, the American Conservative Union. This group had the backing of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. and several former and current representatives. However, the ACU’s first year of rating Congress was 1971, so the ACA had the conservative monopoly so to speak on this matter until then. In time the ACU would get more attention and more prominence and crowd out the ACA, particularly with people like Buckley at the helm. In 1973, Moreell, now a man of eighty-one and in increasingly poor health, retired from the ACA. However, as late as 1980 it still attracted former members of Congress to its Board of Trustees, including H.R. Gross (R-Iowa), Gordon Scherer (R-Ohio), Al Cederberg (R-Mich.), Ed Lee Gossett (D-Tex.), Alton Lennon (D-N.C.), and O. Clark Fisher (D-Tex.). They continued to exist during the 1980s but sometime in the decade went defunct: the American Conservative Union had won the battle of influence. The ACA was also, unlike ACU, uncomfortably close to segregationists during its time. While the organization did have some people who voted for civil rights legislation on its Board of Trustees such as Charles B. Hoeven of Iowa and Katharine St. George and John Pillion of New York, it also had dyed-in-the-wool segregationists, the worst among them being a man who wasn’t even a member of Congress: ACA Assistant Director John J. Synon. Synon was one of the major lobbyists against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, called for closing all public schools and reverting to private schools in response to desegregation, and actively campaigned for George Wallace in 1968. Author William P. Hustwit wrote of him, “Calling someone like Synon a segregationist would be kind. He distributed works of scientific racism through the Patrick Henry Press and always took the most radical stances against civil rights” (125). The ACA seemed to ease up a bit on civil rights by the 1970s, but still counted issues such as busing and affirmative action. Critics also tried to tie the organization with the conspiratorial John Birch Society (JBS), and while ACA denied being supportive of the JBS, they had at least two members of the Board of Trustees who were also members of the John Birch Society: Howard Buffett and retired General Bonner Fellers. The ACU seems to have constituted as an organization a decisive break with the John Birch Society as well as the segregationist elements of the Conservative Coalition, although Southern Democrats did score rather high during the 1970s by their standards as well. The American Conservative Union today is the most significant and oldest conservative organization that issues ratings of members of Congress, but Americans for Constitutional Action was the first.

Sadly, their ratings are not readily available like Americans for Democratic Action’s or American Conservative Union’s are as no organization maintains a website with the ACA-Index. Indeed, one must go to specific university libraries to get access to their publications. It is an ongoing project of mine to reveal ACA-Indexes and discover in as full of detail as possible what the ACA used to judge senators and representatives. I have at my disposal information on what the ACA scores were and even how many votes were counted, and on this basis I try to ascertain what collection of votes produce these scores. I have had far greater success with the House and the Senate: I have the full record on what votes ACA counted to judge representatives from 1957 to 1978. For the Senate, I only have 1961, 1962, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1970, and 1974. Hopefully I will be able, in time, to bring this to completion.

References

Adm. Ben Moreell Dies. (1978, August 1). The Washington Post.

Retrieved from

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1978/08/01/adm-ben-moreel-dies/4372b390-c042-40ad-b23c-56eef4f78f07/

Charnock, E.J. (2020). The rise of political action committees: Interest group electioneering and the transformation of American politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Extension of Remarks of Hon. Bruce Alger of Texas. (1963, June 3). Congressional Record.

Retrieved from

Hustwit, W.P. (2013). James J. Kilpatrick: Salesman for segregation. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Peppard, A. (2018, November 19). Before gunning for JFK, Oswald targeted ex-Gen. Edwin A. Walker and missed. Dallas News.

Retrieved from

https://www.dallasnews.com/news/2018/11/19/before-gunning-for-jfk-oswald-targeted-ex-gen-edwin-a-walker-and-missed/

News Release. (1965, May 26). Americans for Constitutional Action.

Retrieved from

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