Seventy years ago this month, on April 5, 1928, Arthur Vandenberg, editor of the Grand Rapids Herald, was sworn in as a U. S. Senator from Michigan. Replacing Woodbridge Ferris, who died in office, Vandenberg would go on to establish a reputation as one of Michigans most revered public officials, and one whose record deserves to be remembered today.
Vandenberg was actually surprised to be appointed by Governor Fred Green to fill the Ferris seat. He and Green, though both were Republicans, often disagreed. In fact, when the governors official letter of appointment arrived at Vandenbergs desk, he tossed it unopened into the wastebasket, thinking it was nothing more than a sugar-coated letter of rejection. Only after other newspapers published stories about his appointment did he scurry to the Herald trash bin, rummage through the debris, and pluck out his letter before it was destroyed.
Once in the Senate, the popular Vandenberg never left it. He became known internationally for his foreign policy work, especially for supporting President Trumans bi-partisan effort to lead America against Soviet aggression and into the United Nations.
Among his Senate colleagues during the Great Depression, however, he was best known for his political skills, leading the charge against President Roosevelts New Deal program of expansive bureaucracy, massive spending, and government controls. He was not the official Republican leader, but the New York Times and Barrons Weekly called Vandenberg the de facto leader of the Republicans. It was Vandenberg who developed supporting arguments for free enterprise and against the growth "of cumulative power in Washington at the expense of state home-rule and of individual independence."
The New Deal bothered Vandenberg in many ways. First was the dramatic transfer of power to the president, which he argued was plainly unconstitutional. He condemned the "congressional surrender to alphabetical commissars who deeply believe the American people need to be regimented by powerful overlords in order to be saved."
One target of Vandenbergs criticism was the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which forced business to raise prices, fix wages, and limit hours of work. When the NRA went into effect in 1933, the prices of clothes, fuel, and other basics skyrocketedand many Michigan workers had trouble stretching their wages to cover their families needs. Vandenberg rejoiced when the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional two years later. He called it a "welcome repose from the tyranny of a nationalized and planned economy."
Vandenberg also questioned the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), Roosevelts program to pay farmers not to grow crops on part of their land. He argued that the AAA took three times as much money out of Michigan in taxes as farmers in the state received in subsidy payments. He also accused the AAA of giving huge subsidies to rich farmers. Vandenberg demanded that the AAA release the names of all farmers who received large cash payments ($100,000 or more in todays dollars) from the government, but his request was denied.
Vandenberg especially denounced projects that transferred dollars from taxpayers to bureaucrats in the Works Projects Administration (WPA). The word "boondoggle" was coined to describe many of these programs which, Vandenberg observed, tried to provide security to society at the expense of its liberty. He saw these programs as costly "make-work" schemes.
Taxes had to be raised to support massive New Deal spending and Vandenberg condemned Roosevelts 79 percent tax (later raised to 90 percent) on the marginal incomes of Americans with high earnings. You cant "lift the lower one-third up" by pulling "the upper two-thirds down," Vandenberg observed. When Roosevelt became president, only about one of every fifty adults paid any income tax; by the time Roosevelt died in office, the income tax pulled in revenue from about two-thirds of all adults.
What did Michiganians think about Vandenberg, the outspoken free-market maverick? The answer: They elected him to four U. S. Senate terms, more than any Senator in Michigans first 150 years. His courage won him the respect of voters in Michigan and politicians throughout the country.