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Monday, September 1, 1986

A Reviewers Notebook: Congress and the Welfare State

Forty Years Against the Tide: Congress and the Welfare State, by Senator Carl T. Curtis and Regis Courtemanche (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 443 pp., $18.95), is the sort of autobiography of a public figure that Albert Jay Nock, a believer in personal privacy, would have welcomed. As co-author of this memoir, Curtis, who was a Nebraska representative in the House and Senate from 1938 to 1979, never refers to himself in the first person. There is practically nothing about his family life. In reading the book one recalls the remark made by the wife of Frederic Howe, the pre-World War I reformer, when she read the manuscript of her husband’s autobiography. “But Fred,” she asked, “weren’t you ever married?”

Because of the lack of personal detail in this book one never really sees Carl Curtis. (Russell Kirk’s introduction makes up for some of the deficiency.) What one does see is a forty-year panorama of the coming of the Welfare State. The book is certainly sound as history.

As a man of principle, Carl Curtis opposed the growth of the Welfare State philosophy at considerable danger to his own career. It was not that he was against welfare if it had been limited to succoring those who were, for one reason or another, unable to do anything for themselves. But the trouble with welfare, as it developed in a land of competing pressure groups, was that it led the politicians to flood the country with paper money that was far in excess of anything connected with natural productivity. The scramble for this inflationary money created most of the problems that Curtis tried, with considerable pertinacity but little success, to solve by legislation.

Unpopular Causes

The great thing about Carl Curtis is that he was always willing to risk his neck in support of unpopular causes. Nebraska is a grain-growing state, but Curtis was an early opponent of food stamp rackets that might have benefited individual farmers at the expense of the general taxpayers. He didn’t like the sacred cow of the hot lunch program. The section in this book on “Our Daily Bread from the Government” turns into a tribute to Nebraskans, who kept returning Curtis to Washington by big majorities despite their obvious interest in disposing of the agricultural surplus at any cost.

As a member of the Select Committee that investigates labor rackets, Curtis was prominent in the movement that led to certain salutary improvements of the Taft-Hartley Act. He willingly took on the big labor bosses who wanted no truck with secret union elections. What puzzled Curtis was the selectivity of the Kennedy brothers, John and Bobby, when it came to seeking indictments of labor leaders who countenanced the use of goons in labor disputes. Bobby Kennedy, as Attorney General, was indefatigable in his pursuit of Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters Union. But it was a “no-no” when the Kennedys were asked to do something about the United Automobile Workers’ conduct of the strike against the Kohler Company of Wisconsin. There were plenty of instances of goon-squad violence on the part of the UAW in Toledo, Ohio, Buffalo, New York, and Kohler, Wisconsin, but Walter Reuther, the boss of the UAW, led a charmed life when subjected to Curtis’s questioning. The Kennedys wouldn’t touch Reuther.

When Curtis took a leading part in pushing the investigations of Bobby Baker, who became incredibly rich as chief aide to Senator Lyndon Johnson, he led with his chin. For his temerity in the Baker investigations and in his role in exposing the fraudulent mortgage racket of Billie Sol Estes in Texas, Curtis was marked out for purging by Lyndon Johnson. But the Nebraska voters resisted Johnson’s maneuverings to get Curtis out of Washington.

Social Security

Curtis even survived the wrath of the elderly when he openly called Social Security funding into serious question. Curtis doubted the actuarial soundness of a system that certainly wasn’t true insurance. But the young came to Curtis’s rescue, giving him the votes to counteract elderly defections. The young believed him when he pointed out that there were some twenty-two million persons paying Social Security taxes who did not have enough income to pay income taxes.

As one who believed in accentuating the positive, Curtis pushed the idea of the Individual Retirement Account, or IRA. The IRA legislation should have had his name attached to it. Senator Russell Long commended Curtis for his persistence in bringing the “true savings” of IRA into existence as an “antidote to the burdens imposed by Social Security and other taxation.”

Curtis was willing to go to the federal government for help in providing flood control and irrigation for his Nebraska constituency. On the value of irrigation Curtis said “we must not let our natural resources go to waste.” Since the Missouri River system drains one-sixth of the United States, Curtis regarded such things as the Flood Control Act of 1944 a legitimate national concern. It can certainly be argued that support of irrigation as a national expense is not consonant with Curtis’s general feeling that individuals and states should take care of themselves. But consistency here would never have sent Curtis to Washington, where for years he was such a force for good.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.