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Congressional Lions: Robert Wagner

Robert Ferdinand Wagner served as a Democratic United States senator from New York from 1927 until 1949. He was well-known for his efforts to reform politically corrupt institutions. During the New Deal era, Wagner was a prominent champion of the labor movement. His major legislative accomplishments included the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the Social Security Act of 1935, and the Public Housing Act of 1937. Along with Senator Edward P. Costigan, a Democrat from Colorado, he also sponsored an anti-lynching bill prohibiting mob behavior (defined as three or more persons) leading to a lynching with collusion from state or local law enforcement officials. When that measure failed, he co-sponsored a second anti-lynching bill with Senator Frederick Van Nuys of Indiana. The Wagner-Van Nuys bill provided a jail term for up to five years as well as a $5,000 fine for a state official who did not protect a prisoner from a lynch mob. Both bills failed to secure the necessary votes to pass the Congress, but Wagner’s efforts made him a liberal hero. His son, Robert F. Wagner, Jr., served as mayor of New York City from 1954 until 1965.


Wagner was born on June 8, 1877, in the Kingdom of Prussia, part of the German Empire. His family emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1885, settling in New York City. He did not speak English until he was enrolled in public schools and was forced to learn the language to pass his classes. At a young age, he developed a strong work ethic, selling newspapers before school and laboring as an errand boy for a grocery store in the evenings.


In many ways, the story of the Wagner family was the American dream personified, reflecting the experience of many immigrant families. The father and mother were poor, but hard-working. Years later, Robert Wagner described his childhood as “a pretty rough passage.” It informed his political career. “When I found myself in a position to influence social legislation,” he mused, “the thought of the social injustice I had seen all around me and still see all around me impelled me to work for every measure I thought would better such conditions.”


Education and hard work were the keys to advancement. Young Wagner attended public schools, graduating in 1893 as his high school’s valedictorian. With financial assistance from an older brother who paid his living expenses, Robert eventually matriculated at the College of the City of New York (now City College), which was tuition-free. Following graduation with a bachelor of science degree in 1898, he went on to New York University Law School, again with his brother’s help.


He passed the state bar examination and set up a law practice, but it was hardly lucrative. A young lawyer in his position typically gravitated to politics, and Wagner was no exception. He soon joined the Democratic Party’s Tammany Hall political machine. With machine backing, he advanced through an impressive political career, first winning election to the New York State Assembly in 1904. He served from 1905 until 1909, when he advanced into the New York Senate, a position he held until he was elected to the New York Supreme Court and took his seat in 1919. Before he joined the court, he steadily rose through the ranks in the state legislature, advancing from one leadership post to another. He served as the Senate minority leader from 1915 until he departed for the supreme court.


Wagner was proud of his record as a state legislator. During his time in office, he sponsored bills establishing a five-cent fare to Coney Island, workmen’s compensation, restrictions on child labor, and widows’ pensions, among other measures. He made his name as a reliable progressive, and he would remain committed to correcting what he perceived to be social ills throughout a long political career.


He won his U.S. Senate seat in 1926 and was reelected three times. When he arrived in Washington, Wagner already enjoyed a national reputation as a progressive leader who had accomplished lofty goals. As he attained seniority, he chaired the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency and also served on the Foreign Affairs Committee.


Senator Wagner was ahead of his time. His goal of protecting workers from the ill effects of industrialization was premature in the booming 1920s. In fact, the federal government had adopted such a laissez faire attitude toward economic issues that few statistics on employment could be found. To rectify this lapse, Wagner introduced a congressional resolution directing the secretary of labor to compile data on unemployment among the American labor force. The resulting report was a sobering assessment, with more than eight million people unemployed even before the stock market crash of 1929. Alas, Wagner could not persuade a Republican Congress to enact legislation protecting workers when representatives still pined for the halcyon days of the Coolidge administration.


Wagner’s agenda stalled until a new man entered the White House. On March 4, 1933, former New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt swore the oath and replaced the conservative Republican Herbert Hoover as the nation’s chief executive. The new president shared many of Wagner’s concerns for the working man. Indeed, the administration’s New Deal economic relief programs would be shaped in part by Wagner’s recommendations. In the first year of the new administration, the New York senator became a member of FDR’s informal Brain Trust, advising the president on progressive programs to help reduce poverty.


Wagner joined with the administration to push through landmark legislation. In the early days of FDR’s tenure, Wagner and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Robinson introduced a bill to create one of the most famous Alphabet Soup agencies, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a federal bureau modeled on a military hierarchy. The CCC employed young men to construct parks, revamp hiking trails, plant new trees, and repair decrepit roads and bridges in poor areas hit hard by the Depression.


Wagner teamed up with Senators Edward Costigan and Robert M. La Follette to create the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), which provided grant money to states to fund a portion of their overburdened relief programs. FERA assisted cities and states that were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy as they sought to meet the needs of desperate citizens. FERA channeled funds into cash relief programs, rural relief programs, and work projects. The agency existed for fewer than two years, before it was replaced by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).


The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) was one of the New Deal laws most closely associated with Wagner, although he did not achieve this legislative milestone alone. Fearful that the liberals in Congress would hijack New Deal programs—perhaps imperiling passage of much-needed legislation—the president directed Raymond Moley, his assistant secretary of state, to coordinate the work of various administration and congressional officials so they could prepare a plan with a reasonable chance of passing both houses of Congress. The NIRA passed, but conservatives were incensed.


The United States Supreme Court eventually declared key provisions of the statute unconstitutional in a landmark 1935 case, A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. vs. United States. Known colloquially as the “sick chicken” case, the matter arose out of the NIRA regulation of the sale of chickens. Schechter Poultry Company allegedly sold unhealthy chickens in interstate commerce, which caused the federal government to file charges against the company. Prior to enactment of such a law, poultry regulation was viewed as a state or local issue. Business leaders resented the intrusion of an activist federal government into what they believed to be local business transactions. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes found that the fair competition codes that the law allowed the president to create violated the separation of powers because it impermissibly delegated legislative authority to the president in the executive branch. Moreover, Congress exceeded its power under the Commerce Clause because the point at which the sales were regulated involve intrastate, not interstate, commerce.


Roosevelt was furious with the conservative Supreme Court’s dismantling of the administration’s New Deal programs, and Wagner shared the president’s concerns. Nonetheless, the senator resolved to persevere as best he could. During the winter of 1934-1935, he worked with his Senate colleagues to create a new bill. Known as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), it was so closely associated with its sponsor that it became known as the Wagner Act. Roosevelt was worried that the bill might alienate the business community, which it did, but when it passed the Senate by a large margin, the president privately endorsed the measure. After it passed the House of Representatives, he signed it into law on July 5, 1935.


As pleased as he was with the NLRA, Wagner refused to relax his efforts to enact progressive legislation. His list of accomplishments was impressive. He helped to write the Social Security Act, a groundbreaking 1935 law designed to provide funds for the elderly, children, and unemployed persons with no other means of support. Although detractors criticized the law as tantamount to socialism, supporters viewed it as a safety net for millions of Americans who had been rendered destitute by the Great Depression. The statute became the basis for the welfare state that developed in the United States during the twentieth century.


He co-sponsored the Public Housing Act of 1937, sometimes referred to as the Wagner-Steagall Act, a law that provided subsidies paid from the federal government to local public housing authorities to improve the living conditions of low-income American families. The law created an agency, the United States Housing Authority, as part of the United States Department of the Interior.


Senator Wagner joined together with New York Congresswoman Caroline O’Day to sponsor a law directing government agencies that purchase supplies to give priority to companies employing blind citizens. President Roosevelt signed the bill into law on June 25, 1938. It was the predecessor to the Javits–Wagner–O’Day Act of 1971.


Even when he failed, Wagner believed his causes were righteous and worthy of congressional action. In 1934, he sponsored legislation that eventually passed into law as the Railroad Retirement Act. Under the new law, the Railroad Retirement Board was to administer pensions for railroad employees. The law required a two percent payroll tax on employees matched by a four percent employer contribution. Outraged employers filed lawsuits and one case, Railroad Retirement Board vs. Alton Railroad Company, reached the United States Supreme Court. The justices ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it required mandatory pensions, yet Congress did not possess the authority under the Commerce Clause to impose a pension requirement on private corporations. Undaunted, Wagner helped to write legislation that resulted in the Railroad Retirement Act of 1937, which found clever ways of funding pensions apart from relying on congressional Commerce Clause authority.


Wagner pushed for an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934 to allow at least 25 percent of radio channels to be awarded to non-profit broadcasts. To his chagrin, the bill did not pass. If the amendment had passed, it would have empowered the newly-created Federal Communications Commission to hold hearings on the effectiveness of the amendment.


Throughout his career, Wagner remained committed to assisting disadvantaged minorities. He teamed with Republican Congresswoman Edith N. Rogers of Massachusetts to offer a bill increasing the quota of Jewish immigrant children from Nazi Germany to 10,000 in 1939 and another 10,000 in 1940. Wagner and Rogers were worried about the fate of Jews following the infamous 1938 Kristallnacht attacks in Germany. Although the bill enjoyed support among religious and labor organizations, it failed. Nationalist organizations, many of whom were vocal and powerful in Congress, blocked the bill. Senator Robert Rice Reynolds of North Carolina, a rabid racist and Nazi apologist, led the effort to kill the measure.


Arguably, Wagner’s most famous unsuccessful effort involved anti-lynching legislation. In January 1934, Wagner and Senator Costigan, alarmed at the prevalence of extralegal mob lynchings of mostly black men in many sections of the country, especially in the South, introduced an anti-lynching bill. The bill faced long odds against passage. Earlier anti-lynching bills had suffered defeats from outright racists as well as legislators concerned about federal intervention into state affairs.


The Wagner-Costigan bill prohibited mob behavior (defined as three or more persons) leading to a lynching in collusion with state or local law enforcement officials. Recognizing that many lynchings occurred with the imprimatur of law enforcement officials, Wagner and Costigan included a provision that made any police officer found guilty of conspiring with a mob to orchestrate a lynching in his jurisdiction subject to between five and 25 years in prison, and a fine of between $2,000 and $10,000. Any funds collected would be given to the victim’s family. The sponsors hoped that they would avoid objections to previous bills by allowing states to enforce the law in lieu of expressly providing for direct federal intervention. It was not to be. The bill died in the Senate when southern representatives blocked its passage.


Wagner tried again in 1937. That year, Congressman Joseph A. Gavagan of New York introduced an anti-lynching measure in the House of Representatives. After it passed the House and moved into the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gavagan’s bill was joined with a similar measure sponsored by Senator Wagner and Indiana Senator Frederick Van Nuys. The Wagner-Van Nuys bill provided a jail term for up to five years as well as a $5,000 fine for a state official who did not protect a prisoner from a lynch mob. Wagner’s former bill had defined a “mob” as at least three persons, but the 1937 initiative lowered the number to two or more persons. The county where the lynching occurred could be liable for as much as $10,000 to a victim’s family under the Wagner-Van Nuys plan. In June 1937, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported favorably on the two bills. Once again, after a laborious passage through the committee process, the bills died in the Senate. The powerful southern bloc prevented its passage, and Wagner was forced to withdraw the bill on February 21, 1938. Anti-lynching bills would reappear again, but they never secured sufficient votes to close off a Senate filibuster.


For all of his interest in other progressive causes, labor issues remained Wagner’s passion. A year after the 1937 anti-lynching bill stalled, Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the last major bill of the New Deal era, and a law that Wagner deemed vitally important. Passed in the waning days of the 75th Congress in 1938, the law provided for a standard forty-hour work week and required employers to pay overtime rates for work beyond that limit. Children under 18 were prohibited from performing certain types of dangerous work, and those under 16 could not be employed during school hours. President Roosevelt called the FLSA the most important New Deal law since the Social Security Act.


Wagner’s influence began to wane in the 1940s. As the New Deal era passed away, the senator no longer saw as many opportunities to push through projects near and dear to his heart. His health also declined during these years. Despite his decreased legislative activity, Wagner supported the Roosevelt administration’s Lend-Lease program to supply equipment to European countries opposing the Axis powers before the United States entered the Second World War. At the end of the war, Wagner also served as a delegate to the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.


Wagner missed Senate sessions in 1947 and 1948 owing to a heart ailment. Recognizing that he no longer possessed the stamina to complete his Senate duties and faithfully represent the interests of his constituents, he formally resigned from his seat on June 28, 1949. He spent the remainder of his life as an invalid. Robert F. Wagner died on May 4, 1953, at the age of 75.



A New York Times editorial described him as a “pioneer and innovator in social legislation” who “was imbued with the zeal of a born crusader,” which made him an effective champion for the impoverished. “Few, if any, have added as many illustrious chapters to our social welfare history,” the editorial concluded. In September 2004, Wagner’s portrait, along with a portrait of Michigan Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, was added to the portraits of distinguished senators hanging in the Senate Reception Room.



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© 2020 J . Michael Martinez