the art of passing legislation -- 11/17/17

Today's selection -- from Divided Highways by Tom Lewis. The U.S. Interstate Highway System, enacted in 1956, was the largest public works project in world history. The legislation to enact it had failed in 1955, even though the bill was carefully crafted to provide funding through a gasoline tax and was sold as necessary for Cold War-era defense against Communist attacks on U.S. soil. Why did it pass in 1956 and not in 1955? The designers changed the plans to ensure that every major state and district had miles of gleaming new highways:

"In the House of Representatives George Hyde Fallon introduced the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which provided for the construction of the Interstate Highway System. ... This time Fallon vowed that he would not allow the bill to be pecked to death [as it had been in 1955]. He need not have worried. By 1956, almost everyone­ -- road-building and civic associations, truckers, and most especially the highway construction industry -- realized that the taxes proposed were insignificant in comparison with the benefits that would be reaped. Tire makers realized that an excise tax on tires would not be especially detri­mental to an industry that would sell more tires as cars and trucks traveled more miles. When asked at a press conference on April 25 to comment on the legislation before the House of Representatives, President Eisenhower seemed vague. 'We need highways badly, very badly, and I am in favor of any forward, constructive step in this field.' His words signaled that the administration had at long last abandoned its proposal for highway bonds. The bill could go through as written. Two days later the House passed the Fallon and Boggs bills by an overwhelming margin of 388 to 19.

"Following the House vote, the Senate took up the measure. [Sen. Albert Gore Sr.] proposed essentially the same bill as he had the year before, which was in substantial agreement with the legislation passed by the House. On May 29, after a lengthy debate on minor provisions in the bill, the Senate passed on a voice vote the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. 'I confidently expect when we go to conference, we can merge my bill and the Fallon bill into a highway measure that will be on the President's desk well before July 1,' said Gore when the bill went to conference. On June 25, both houses of Congress approved the conference bill. ...

" 'I am proud to say that political considerations were completely put aside,' said one senator about the 1956 Interstate highway bill. Not exactly. One significant change took place between the first and second sessions of Congress that made the road bill more palatable to almost all the members, and especially to those representatives whose districts en­compassed major metropolitan areas. The Bureau of Public Roads still had to designate 2,175 miles of Interstate highways and it decided to place them in cities. That September every member of Congress received a one-hundred-page book from the bureau entitled General Location of National System of Interstate Highways Including All Additional Routes at Urban Areas. Owing to the color of its cover, everyone came to call it the 'Yellow Book.' Unlike most documents of that length produced in Washington, the Yellow Book contained just three sentences. The rest of its pages were maps that showed how Interstate highways would cross and circumscribe the major metropolitan areas of forty-three states and the District of Columbia.

Commemorative sign introduced in 1993.

"The bureau's designation of additional miles of Interstate for cities had been shrewd. Suddenly scores of representatives had dramatic pictures of just how the new Interstates would benefit voters from their dis­trict. Thus Harold R. Lovre, the Republican congressman whose district included Minnehaha County in South Dakota, could see that Sioux Falls would be connected to the black lines representing Interstates 90 and 29 at the north and west edges of the city, and also a new bold black line­ -- Interstate 229 -- that diverged from Interstate 29 south of the city, crossed the Big Sioux River, and curved north to connect at the north­east corner with Interstate 90. Sioux Falls, a city that numbered 52,696 men, women, and children in 1950, had its own beltway. Lovre had voted against the Fallon bill in 1955. Now that Sioux Falls would be surrounded by construction jobs and concrete, how could he resist? The Yellow Book had given Lovre a reason to justify his vote to increase federal taxes on fuel, tires, and trucks. The congressman changed his vote. So did Hugh Scott from Philadelphia, Charles B. Brownson from Indianapolis, John M. Vorys from Columbus, and dozens of other representatives. In the end, only one representative whose city appeared in the Yellow Book voted against the 1956 highway bill. He failed to be reelected to the 85th Congress."



Tom Lewis


Divided Highways


Cornell University Press


Copyright 2013 by Tom Lewis


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