How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul

From Matt Stoller at The Atlantic:

While not a household name today, Wright Patman was a legend in his time. His congressional career spanned 46 years, from 1929 to 1976. In that near-half-century of service, Patman would wage constant war against monopoly power. As a young man, at the height of the Depression, he challenged Herbert Hoover’s refusal to grant impoverished veterans’ accelerated war pensions. He successfully drove the immensely wealthy Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon from office over the issue. Patman’s legislation to help veterans recoup their bonuses, the Bonus Bill—and the fight with Mellon over it—prompted a massive protest by World War I veterans in Washington, D.C., known as “the Bonus Army,” which helped shape the politics of the Depression.

In 1936, he authored the Robinson-Patman Act, a pricing and antitrust law that prohibited price discrimination and manipulation, and that finally constrained the A&P chain store—the Walmart of its day—from gobbling up the retail industry. He would go on to write the Bank Secrecy Act, which stops money-laundering; defend Glass-Steagall, which separates banks from securities dealers; write the Employment Act of 1946, which created the Council of Economic Advisors; and initiate the first investigation into the Nixon administration over Watergate.

Far from the longwinded octogenarian the Watergate Babies saw, Patman’s career reads as downright passionate, often marked by a vitality you might see today in an Elizabeth Warren—as when, for example, he asked Fed Chairman Arthur Burns, “Can you give me any reason why you should not be in the penitentiary?” Despite his lack of education, Patman had a savvy political and legal mind. In the late 1930s, the Federal Reserve Board refused to admit it was a government institution. So Patman convinced the District of Columbia’s government to threaten foreclosure of all Federal Reserve Board property; the Board quickly produced evidence that it was indeed part of the federal government.

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