The Missed Opportunity for an Economic Budget

JamesEMurrayFullEmployment“There is something wrong with the distribution of income in our economy. Not enough of the income created by production gets into the hands of those that will spend it back into production.

Senator James E. Murray, 1945 [1]

The end of World War II placed employment at the top of the national agenda. Seasoned lawmakers and experienced public officials had lived through the burst of an employment bubble after WWI, twenty-five years early, and the Great Depression that followed.

President Roosevelt, during his annual message to Congress, proposed a “Second Bill of Rights” to guide Congress in establishing “a standard of living, higher than ever know before.”

The rights included:

  • The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
  • The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
  • The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
  • The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
  • The right of every family to a decent home;
  • The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
  • The right to a good education.[2]

Senators Harry Truman (D-MO) and Senator James E. Murray (D-MT) presided over a Senate subcommittee focused on the first point, to provide employment opportunities for all Americans. When Truman left the Senate for the Vice Presidency, the responsibility for shaping legislation fell to Murray. In 1945, Murray, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, drafted Senate Bill 380, the “Full Employment Act of 1945” and found bi-partisan co-sponsors in Senators Wagner (D-NY), Thomas (D-UT), O’Mahoney (D-WY), Morse (R-OR), Tobey (R-NH), Aiken (R-VT), and Langer (R-ND).

S. 380 sought to go beyond the reactionary work-relief measures crafted after the Great Depression, by taking advance measures to avoid depression and unemployment altogether. A critical element of this proactive approach was for the President to prepare a separate “National Production and Employment Budget” (Economic Budget), apart from the regular budget, that prescribes a “complete and well-rounded program for maintaining full production.” Murray believed that the Economic Budget would focus lawmakers on substantive employment policy matters every year, as opposed to merely limiting the discussion to meaningless campaign rhetoric every presidential election. [3]

During the subsequent debates of S. 380, the bill was watered-down, the Economic Budget was dropped, as was “Full” from the title. The Employment Act of 1946, adopted and signed into law, created policy objectives similar to those outlined in F.D.R.’s Second Bill of Rights, but it fell short in focusing Congressional attention on the economy and unemployment.

An annual Economic Budget is a concept worth revisiting. It could pull the nation’s most important issue off the campaign trail and put it back into halls of Congress where it belongs. It would serve as a central point to discuss living wages, work-visas, public service employment and corporate out-sourcing.

[1] James E. Murray, “A Practical Approach,” The American Political Science Review 39, no. 6 (December 1945): 1119–26.

[2] http://www.ushistory.org/documents/economic_bill_of_rights.htm

[3] Murray, “A Practical Approach.”

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