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  • Mike Martinez

Congressional Lions: George W. Norris

George William Norris of Nebraska served five terms in the United States House of Representatives (1903-1913) as well as five terms in the United States Senate (1913-1943). Much to his chagrin, he was defeated for reelection in 1942. Norris was a Republican for most of his career, although he declared himself an independent during his final term in the Senate. He became a well-known progressive and was instrumental in creating the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) during Franklin Roosevelt’s first term as president. Roosevelt once described Norris as “the very perfect, gentle knight of American progressive ideals.” Norris’s legislative acumen became legendary. In 1957, a panel of 160 scholars recommended that Norris be listed as one of the five most effective senators in United States history. Owing to opposition from a politically conservative senator, Norris was not included in the list; however, to anyone who has examined his record of legislative successes apart from ideological considerations, Norris clearly stand outs as one of the most influential members to ever serve in Congress. I discuss his life and career in my recently-published book, Congressional Lions: Trailblazing Members of Congress and How They Shaped American History.

Born in Ohio on the eve of the Civil War in 1861, Norris grew up poor. It was a difficult childhood, but George bore up under the strain. He viewed education as the key to success, and so he worked diligently to earn his college degree despite his relative poverty. His tenacity paid off: Norris eventually earned his undergraduate degree from Baldwin University (later called Baldwin-Wallace University) in Berea, Ohio, and a law degree from Valparaiso University in Indiana.

After graduation, he moved to Beaver City, Nebraska, to practice law. Norris became a prosecutor and judge before winning a seat as a Republican in the United States House of Representatives in 1902. Like many Republicans, he was a mostly conservative man who reflected the mainstream values of his constituents. Nebraskans were primarily farmers, and they expected their elected officials to craft federal agricultural policies to meet their needs. Elected with the help of railroad men, Norris swore fidelity to his party and his people.

Something happened to him after he arrived in Washington, D.C., though. He soon found that he could not always support his party. A new member of Congress, it was said, must go along to get along. The House of Representatives became increasingly rule-bound as the two-party system solidified during the latter half of the nineteenth century. By the time George Norris took is seat early in the twentieth century, strong congressional leaders, especially in the House, insisted that rank-and-file members follow the leader without question. Norris chafed at such institutional control, finding the rigidity stultifying and enervating. He decided early in his tenure that he must follow the dictates of his conscience, even if that meant bucking partisan traditions. Norris drew inspiration from the Republican standard bearer, President Theodore Roosevelt, who had earned a powerful reputation as a man who stood his ground even if he occasionally went against his party’s desires. Recognizing that the railroads who had helped him win his House seat were not always interested in the needs of the citizenry, by 1906 Norris, emulating TR, had broken ranks and refused to go along with the expected platform.

Congressman Norris soon joined forces with a group of novice lawmakers dubbed “the insurgents.” In January 1909, the insurgents introduced measures to curb the power of the speaker, notably his authority to appoint members to House committees. Their antipathy toward Speaker Joseph G. Cannon became legendary. “Uncle Joe,” as he was sometimes called, was a dictatorial obstructionist who conducted House business based on his own whims with little regard for the desires of rank-and-file members. Biding their time, the insurgents searched for a chance to limit the speaker’s prerogatives. On March 17, 1910, they spied a prime opportunity.

Cannon had ruled that any legislation referencing a clause in the United States Constitution was privileged and must therefore be considered in due course. Using this logic, Congressman Norris rose on the House floor and offered a resolution that, in his view, was constitutionally privileged. Presumably, such a resolution would forgo introduction into the Rules Committee and would be considered directly on the House floor. The insurgents’ resolution was grounded in a provision found in Article I, Section 5, of the Constitution, which provides in relevant part that “Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members” and, furthermore, that “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings….”

Cannon immediately recognized the threat to his authority. If he ruled that Norris’ motion was in order, the insurgents could ask House members to vote on limiting the speaker’s power. In light of the growing animosity directed at Cannonism, it was entirely possible that the insurgents would score a victory and the speaker’s power would be diminished. Following a brief pause, Cannon allowed Norris to read the resolution. The speaker had allowed constitutionally privileged matters to be taken up as a matter of right. He could not veto a similar measure without stirring up charges of hypocrisy. He was caught.

Norris proposed that membership on the Rules Committee, which controlled the flow of legislation to the floor, be increased to 15 members and allow for geographically balanced representation so that congressmen from different parts of the country could take part in the deliberations. The speaker would no longer select the Rules Committee chairman; the position would be filled by committee members. Moreover, the speaker could not serve on the committee, thereby insulating the committee from direct interference. Clearly, this new procedure would hamper the speaker’s ability to influence the flow of legislation from the standing committees to the floor.

Uncle Joe had faced opposition previously; he understood how to use the House institutional structure to good advantage. He would not surrender without a struggle. Perhaps he could escape from the Insurgents’ trap. Congressman John Dalzell, a staunch Cannon ally, sprang into action, arguing that the Insurgents’ resolution was not constitutionally privileged. After a bruising 26-hour debate, Speaker Cannon ruled that Dalzell’s interpretation was correct. The resolution was not privileged; hence, it was out of order.

Norris had anticipated this ruling. While the debate raged, he cut a deal with Missouri Congressman James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark and Alabama Congressman Oscar Underwood to support the insurgents’ resolution—with one major amendment. Rules Committee members would be selected by members of the entire House of Representatives. The insurgents initially objected to the change, but they realized that their only hope of breaking the speaker’s iron grip on the institution was to accept the compromise. Following fierce internal debate, the insurgents finally relented.

Cannon, in the meantime, knew nothing of these behind-the-scenes negotiations. In a ruling that surprised no one, he decided that the resolution was not constitutionally privileged, and he sought a return to the status quo. Norris immediately appealed the ruling to the full House. In an earlier time, the speaker could count on his party to support his wishes and uphold his decision, but times had changed. The House membership, in a stunning move, concluded by a vote of 182 to 162 that the resolution was privileged, despite the speaker’s conclusion. Pandemonium erupted.

As everyone considered the consequences of this brave new world, Norris rose to offer amendments to the resolution. Reflecting his agreement with Messrs. Clark and Underwood, Norris withdrew the geographic requirement and agreed that Rules Committee membership should be limited to 10. The entire House would select Rules Committee members. In another momentous change, Democrats and Republicans joined forces to push through a measure providing that seniority, not the leadership’s preferences, would determine which committees the members served on in each new House session. The final vote was 191 to 156 in support of the motion. Uncle Joe’s power, while still considerable, was no longer absolute.

In 1912, Norris decided it was time to leave the House. He ran for and won a seat in the United States Senate. He served the people of Nebraska in that position for the next 30 years. In the Senate, he remained a progressive, willing to support anyone’s policies if they protected the disadvantaged. Norris the Republican even supported Democrat President Woodrow Wilson’s domestic agenda, but he came to oppose the administration as the United States inched toward joining the Great War in Europe, much to Wilson’s aggravation.

In 1917, after Germany announced a policy of unrestricted submarine attacks on any ships transporting supplies to the Allies in Europe, the president reacted with outrage. The announcement, he said, was tantamount to a war declaration. Wilson had squeaked out his reelection in 1916 on a slogan that “he kept us out of war.” By the spring of 1917, however, it was clear that he favored arming the United States for a possible conflict in Europe.

On February 26, 1917, the president addressed a joint session of Congress asking for approval to arm American merchant ships against German submarine attacks. He probably possessed the authority to arm the ships without congressional approval, but Wilson wanted to ensure widespread support for his action. Much to his dismay, 11 senators filibustered to prevent the bill from advancing to a vote. Norris was among the group of 11. He detested the Senate’s filibuster rule, which allowed a passionate minority of senators to prevent a majority from voting, but he thought the issue was important enough to employ a tactic he preferred to avoid.

Anger toward Germany and rally-round-the-flag sentiment provided Wilson with tremendous public support. Seventy-five senators supported the president, and they were incensed that 11 of their colleagues would filibuster against the president’s bill. Anxious to show their patriotism, the majority signed a manifesto condemning their colleagues for standing in the way of the president’s desires. When he penned his doctoral dissertation decades earlier, Wilson had concluded that “It is the proper duty of a representative body to look diligently into every affair of government and to talk much about what it sees.” He changed his opinion after he became president. “[The] Senate of the United States is the only legislative body in the world which cannot act when its majority is ready for action,” he observed. “A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.”

Most senators agreed with Wilson. They were reluctant to abolish the filibuster rule, but they wanted to ensure that a minority could no longer hold a majority hostage. During a special session on March 8, 1917, the Senate provided for a compromise approach. The chamber adopted Rule 22, which allowed for cloture, a mechanism where two-thirds of the senators could close off debate, permitting each member to speak for an additional hour afterward before voting on a measure. It was a rebuke to the 11 recalcitrant senators, including Norris, but it did not amount to much in the short run. Cloture was rarely used. In the ensuing 46 years, it was only invoked five times.

Deeply isolationist, Norris continued to oppose the war, believing that the United States should not become entangled in European affairs. After the war, he vehemently opposed ratification of the Versailles Treaty as well as U.S. participation in the League of Nations. His detractors believed that Norris was a contrarian for no good reason, but his supporters saw him as a principled, honest man, one of the few in Washington, D.C.

Through all of his years in Congress, he remained proudly iconoclastic, generally supporting progressive causes, but unafraid to go his own way. Norris supported ratification of a constitutional amendment allowing United States senators to be directly elected by citizens as opposed to election by state legislatures. He also pushed for an amendment creating a unicameral legislature. The amendment providing for direct election of United States senators eventually passed, but the federal government refused to create a unicameral legislative body.

In 1936, Norris announced that he was leaving the Republican Party. The decision was a long time in coming, and he did not act rashly. A staunch New Deal supporter, the senator simply could not bring himself to uphold the tenets of a party that he no longer believed would fairly represent the common man. He enjoyed a modicum of Democratic support, but Norris chose to become an independent. Despite deserting the Republicans, he was reelected to the Senate in 1936.

Norris’s life and career remained a work in progress, and he sometimes reversed long-held positions when he realized that times and circumstances had changed. Although he was an avid New Dealer, he broke ranks with the president when Roosevelt sought to pack the United States Supreme Court with friendly justices through the Judiciary Reorganization Act of 1937. Norris had been an isolationist for most of his political life, but he changed his position after he saw the famous “Bloody Saturday” photograph of a baby crying amidst the ruins of the Shanghai railway station following a Japanese bombing in August 1937. He gradually moved into the interventionist fold, supporting America’s entry into World War II in 1941. In the last battle of his public life, Norris supported anti-poll tax legislation, but southern conservatives filibustered and killed the bill.

The senator’s well-known independence caused him problems when he ran for reelection in 1942. Having alienated many Republicans and lacking significant Democratic support, Norris lost to Republican Kenneth S. Wherry. Chagrined, he left Washington with a terse comment that could have served as his epitaph. “I have done my best to repudiate wrong and evil in government affairs,” he said.

George Norris died on September 3, 1944, less than two years after his electoral defeat. He was 83 years old. In a public statement, President Roosevelt lamented that “a pillar of state has fallen, a tower of strength has been laid low, and a grand old champion of popular rights has made his journey.” A New York Times editorial characterized him as “one of the last of the elder statesmen. Probably no Senator in his time left a deeper impress on changing America.” For all of his accomplishments, though, “his character was his noblest monument. Grave and gentle in individual relations, he was hard as granite toward the things he hated. Above all, he hated corruption and sought to crush it. Wrong-headed he could be. Wrong-hearted he never was. His influence will remain as the shining exemplar of the utterly sincere and honest man in politics.”

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