Politics, Pressures, and the Tariff

[Prentice Hall, $2.50]
ONE of the favorite similes of modern physicists, when they wish to indicate the limits of probability, is to conjure up the spectacle of a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters by chance writing all the books in the British Museum. One feels, in reading this book, somewhat like an actual spectator at such an experiment, for, as the author says, only by accident could intelligent legislation have come out of such a monkey pen as that in which the last tariff revision was concocted.
This book makes plain, with citations of the record, that the process of making the law in the latter instance provided for discrimination only in choosing the line of least resistance. The formula actually employed by the committees of the House and Senate in 1929 and 1930 was that of equalizing the cost of production abroad with the domestic cost. Of the effort to determine actual costs the author is forced to say, ‘One hesitates to cali the figures on domestic costs the worst ever assembled only because the limit of miscalculation is uncertain.’
The justification of so harsh a judgment of the tariff revision rests upon a minute examination of the procedure of the committees which dealt with it, and of their relations with the lobby and with the Tariff Commission. At all points the author’s analysis is keen and thorough, and reflects the general progress of investigations in the field of pressure politics in the last decade. It also reflects the present preoccupation of political science with the ’hard-boiled’ concept of power as the basis of politics.
The tendency has been of late to recognize that the lobby is not altogether bad, and that it does certain things in a way that produces at least as definite results as are achieved in other governments. When the lobby is called our third house, the implication is that it does accomplish the task of informing Congress of the interests of important functional groups in the country and of the facts behind those interests. As such it is seen as an essential part of our representative system.
Congress itself cannot write a tariff act without help. But the procedure of securing help and information from sources outside of Congress is open to the widest possible variation. In the case of the tariff revision it was about as bad as could be. The means of notification of hearings, the handling of witnesses, the questions asked, the pitifully slight use made of the facilities of the Tariff Commission, partly due to the inadequacy of the Commission’s own capacities, and the state of affairs in the groups concerned with the subject, all conspired to secure a perfect registration of existing will power and a perfect disregard of every other consideration. The proceedings were carried on in a way to favor insiders — that is to say, experienced lobbyists - as against outsiders. The organized trade associations which were represented posed as being solidly united blocs when in many cases they were not. They were represented by men whose credentials were never examined. The most active ones hired the best legislative counsel. They even foreshadowed one of the most often ridiculed features of the New Deal by hiring professors in large numbers. The circumstances of the life of associations in general and of those concerned with the tariff in particular led to a heavyweight advantage in favor of those who were asking for increases in the tariff as against any opposition. In other words, aside from all questions as to the actual quality of the product, the process was a flat failure as representation.
It is interesting to note that some of the evils pointed out in this volume have been corrected. The failure to apply a little criticism to the pretensions of lobbyists is no longer true. The disequity among groups due to what Professor Schattschneider calls the advantage of the offensive has been corrected, not by strengthening the defense, but by awakening certain formerly defensive groups to the possibility of getting something too. The tariff itself has been taken out of the hands of Congress by giving the President power to make agreements such as that recently concluded with Canada. But the factors which made the Act an outstanding but still typical case of ‘private,’ ’personal, ‘trivial’ legislation, suffering from ‘elephantiasis,’ as this book describes it, remain to be dealt with. As it suggests, ‘The alternative in tariff legislation is not between simple statutes and complex statutes, nicely adjusted to meet a thousand different needs, but between simple statutes designed to accomplish a few broad purposes contemplated in the policy of protection, and statutes which, however complex they may seem, are nevertheless simple, but defeat the ends sought in the policy.’ The technique of writing bad laws has been practised in two major variations by the last two administrations. Uncontrolled pressures and uncontrolled administrative leadership are perhaps equally incompetent to deal with our needs, and yet they may be the limits of our choice.
Politics, Pressure, and the Tariff is a case study in pressure politics, but at the same time it is an extremely lucid commentary on a typical failure in our makeshift political system.