In 1928, Congressman Eugene Black was facing a tough primary. Black was one of the more conservative Texas Democrats in his day and his challenger, John William Wright Patman (1893-1976), was running on a populist platform that he was too friendly with business. This accusation stuck, and Patman prevailed. He quickly became a vocal critic of the Hoover Administration and especially Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. His efforts to impeach Mellon contributed to his resignation, accepting a post of Ambassador to Britain for the remainder of the Hoover presidency.
Patman was eager to shake things up in his early years and did so as one of the few representatives to join Louis T. McFadden’s (R-Penn.) push to impeach President Hoover and pushed strongly for his bill to promptly pay veterans their war bonuses, the Patman Bonus Bill. Although it was vetoed by both Hoover and Roosevelt, a compromise version managed to be passed over Roosevelt’s 1936 veto. Unlike many of his fellow Texans, Wright Patman mostly remained faithful to the New Deal after Roosevelt’s first two terms. He was an old-time populist at heart and his underlying belief that there was too much economic power concentrated in an evil combine of big banks, big business, and government and was downright Jacksonian. In 1936, he co-authored and sponsored with Sen. Joseph Robinson (D-Ark.) the Robinson-Patman Act, which was aimed at preventing big box retailers from pricing out mom and pop stores. In 1946, Patman succeeded in getting the Employment Act into law, which created the Council of Economic Advisers and the Congressional Joint Economic Committee and “maximum employment, production and purchasing power” became a permanent objective of national policy, cementing the government’s role in regulating the economy (Shanahan). He also succeeded in the creation of the Federal credit union system and the establishment of the Small Business Administration.
In 1952 and 1953 Patman voted for committees to investigate tax-exempt institutions, the Cox and Reece Committees respectively. Although the Cox Committee yielded nothing of note, the Reece Committee dug deeper and uncovered an effort by these institutions to influence education in a more internationalist and left-wing direction. Although the Reece Committee’s report had terrible timing as its 1954 release coincided with the McCarthy censure and thus it was lumped in with this in the public perception, Patman wanted to give such investigations a third try. This he did in 1962, and the political context was a bit different as it wasn’t at the height of the so-called Second Red Scare and unlike Reps. Edward E. Cox and B. Carroll Reece, Patman was not a creature of the right. His report in 1963 assailed the growth of tax-exempt institutions as new monopolies that were effectively being subsidized by taxpayers and uncovered the funneling of money from the CIA to groups with no seeming connection to the government (Shanahan). He called for further regulation and oversight of these institutions. In 1963, Patman became head of the House Banking and Currency Committee and proved a headache for financial institutions and his critics held that his methods were dictatorial and that he would start investigations without the approval of anyone else on the committee.
On civil rights, Patman’s record was mostly negative. In 1956, he signed the Southern Manifesto and he voted against efforts at combating employment and housing discrimination. Patman did, however, vote for the final versions of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (possibly as a show of support for LBJ) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Patman was, however, supportive of New Frontier and Great Society legislation. His record shifted a bit more rightward in the Nixon years out of his support for the Vietnam War and his lack of enthusiasm for social liberalism, but Patman was still at heart a New Dealer, especially on economics. He was an abrasive foe of Nixon who he had long despised, and once asked Federal Reserve chairman Arthur Burns when testifying before Congress, “Can you give me any reason why you should not be in the penitentiary?” (Stoller, 2016) In 1970, he managed to block a bailout of the Penn Central Railroad and in 1972 he succeeded in getting price control legislation passed. However, Patman never succeeded in revolutionizing the Federal Reserve or commercial banking system. He in 1972 tried to investigate the Watergate break-in but didn’t get enough support to move forward before the election. Although Patman led efforts to elect Democrats in the 1974 midterms, by the start of 1975 he was eighty-one years old, and his effectiveness was perceived to have declined. Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen regarded him as “Not senile, but not in command. He had done his thing. He had had his day” (Stoller, 2019, 344). Patman’s anti-bank politics and sentiments, while consistent with those of traditional Democratic Party hero Andrew Jackson, were out of touch to pro-bank liberal Democrats, such as Pete Stark, a banker by profession, who thought that Patman’s “economic ideas were not in pace with modern concepts” (Stoller, 2019, 344). His colleagues on the Banking Committee were on board with ousting him as well. As Matt Stoller (2016) writes, “For more than a decade, Patman had represented a Democratic political tradition stretching back to Thomas Jefferson, an alliance of the agrarian South and the West against Northeastern capital. For decades, Patman had sought to hold financial power in check, investigating corporate monopolies, high interest rates, the Federal Reserve, and big banks. And the banking allies on the committee had had enough of Patman’s hostility to Wall Street”. He was ousted from his chairmanship of the House Banking and Currency Committee in favor of Henry Reuss of Wisconsin. The New Yorker Magazine condemned the ousting of Patman, writing “He’s something of a crank, but he’s an intelligent and knowledgeable crank. Those Young Turks who shoved the old Populist aside not only were being cruel, but were probably making a mistake” (Shanahan). He died in office only a year later.
Patman’s MC-Index life score was a 21%, with the last seven years of his career being a bit more conservative than his preceding years in Congress. Patman would almost certainly be horrified by modern neoliberalism and think of it as part II of the 1920s. He strikes me as the sort of Democrat that the white working class could still absolutely get behind, but Democrats have, with some exceptions such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, largely abandoned old-time populism. Patman’s son, Bill, would serve in Congress from 1981 to 1985.
Grant, P.A. Patman, John William Wright. Texas State Historical Association.
Kenworthy, E.W. (1972, October 13). Patman Balked on Watergate. The New York Times.
Shanahan, E. (1976, March 8). Wright Patman, 82, Dean of House, Dies. The New York Times.
Stoller, M. (2019). Goliath: The 100-year war between monopoly power and democracy. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Stoller, M. (2016, October 24). How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul. The Atlantic.