Speaking at the Heritage Foundation on February 20, author Amity Shlaes reminded her audience, “if you want to know only one thing about Calvin Coolidge,” the subject of her new biography, “it is that when he left office in 1929” – 67 months after he had succeeded Warren Harding -- “the federal government was smaller than when he had become president in 1923.”
That singular achievement is one of the aspects of Coolidge's life that motivated Shlaes, a syndicated columnist for Bloomberg View and director of the Four Percent Growth Project at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, to write the simply-titled Coolidge, which is both follow-up and prequel to her previous best-selling book, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.
“I'm on a mission of reputation-building,” Shlaes said, in light of the fact that Coolidge tends to be ranked low among historians of the presidency. She identified parallels between the time Coolidge took office in post-World War I America and the present day, when crises seemed to emerge day after day, tempting the government to “do something.”
Parallels to today
For instance, federal debt had grown by a factor of 20 since before the First World War. The times were “troubled,” Shlaes said, because thousands of returning veterans had been unable to find work and as many as one-third of them were disabled.
At the end of the Wilson administration, she explained, “the machine of government was broken. They had gridlock,” not unlike the current standoff between Republicans in Congress and the Obama White House.
In 1920, the presidential ticket of Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding and Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge ran on a platform of “no” – as Shlaes put it, “not kinder, gentler, but 'no'” to spending, to taxes, to expanding government.
During Harding's term, Congress passed the Budget and Accounting Act, which established the forerunner of today's Office of Management and Budget (OMB). For the first time, the federal government was able to invoke independent analysis of budget proposals with an overarching view of how programs added up. Previously, appropriations were made on an ad-hoc basis, which made it difficult for presidents, when asked for something, to say “no.”
Cutting tax rates
After Harding died, Coolidge continued and built upon his program of austerity. With Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, he cut the top marginal income tax rate to 25 percent, resulting in increased revenues paid to the U.S. Treasury. (No other president has been able to achieve such low marginal rates since then. Ronald Reagan, Shlaes pointed out, was only able to cut the top rate to 28 percent.)
Coolidge made cutting government into an art. He used the political skills he had honed since first being elected to public office at age 26 to veto 50 bills over six years. He also made ample use of the “pocket veto,” which requires no message of explanation and, because Congress is not in session when the president quietly rejects the bill, it cannot be overridden. Coolidge, Shlaes said, “was like an Isaac Stern of the pocket veto.”
Coolidge's use of the veto and pocket veto reflected his view that “it's better to kill bad laws than to pass good ones.” As then-prominent political commentator Walter Lippmann put it, Coolidge used “dullness and boredom as a political device,” in order to prevent bad legislation.
In reply to a question posed by the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner about Coolidge's role in Prohibition, Shlaes said he regarded it “as a bother.” Earlier in his career, she explained, he had seen commerce in alcoholic beverages as beneficial to local farmers and businesses. He also understood that Prohibition was unpopular among recent immigrants, and he was concerned about his party (the Republicans) losing immigrant votes – something, she pointed out, with parallels today.
Coolidge, she explained, “tried to ignore [Prohibition] as best as he could” but felt constrained to uphold it because it was the law of the land. He disfavored Prohibition because “there was too much social legislation when economic legislation is more important.”
Still, before the repeal of the 18th Amendment, Coolidge bought stock in a grocery-supply company that sold a great deal of yeast, a major component of making beer and other fermented beverages. He was betting, Shlaes said, that Prohibition would end sooner rather than later.