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Alasdair Roberts

School of Policy Studies

Queen's University

June 1994

ABSTRACT: In January, 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt submitted an ambitious

plan for administrative reform of the national government to Congress. The Brownlow

recommendations produced intense debate in Congress. However, some of the most

important skirmishes in this battle were not fought in public, and even after half a century

remain largely obscured from public view. One such skirmish was the contest within the

academic community about the recommendations on administrative reform that were to

be put before Congress. This paper considers why all three parties to this fight -- the

Brownlow Committee, the Brookings Institution, and the Rockefeller Foundation -- went

to such lengths to avoid public disagreement about the Brownlow recommendations. A

public disagreement threatened to undermine the academic community's demonstration of

neutrality, and thus to undermine the stability of the Public Administration community


Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1318399



In January, 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt submitted an ambitious plan for

administrative reform of the national government to Congress. Roosevelt’s

reorganization bill was based on a report produced by the President’s Committee on

Administrative Management -- a panel of three "specialists in public administration"

appointed by Roosevelt in March, 1936, and led by Louis Brownlow, who was perhaps

the best-known expert in the field. The Brownlow recommendations produced intense

debate in Congress; the reorganization proposals were ultimately defeated in March,

1938, in what historian William Leuchtenberg has described as "the worst rebuff

Roosevelt was ever to suffer" in his twelve years as President (1963: 279). The public

battle over the Brownlow proposals has already received extensive scholarly attention.1

However, some of the most important skirmishes in this battle were not fought in public,

and even after half a century remain largely obscured from public view. One such

skirmish was the contest within the academic community about the recommendations on

administrative reform that were to be put before Congress.

The fight within the academic community centred on the Brownlow Committee's

proposal to weaken the General Accounting Office’s power to control spending within

the Executive Branch (PCAM, 1937). This conflict emerged in the Fall of 1936, when

the Brownlow Committee realized that another group of "specialists in Public

Administration" at the Brookings Institution was likely to provide Congress with a report

which implicitly challenged the Brownlow report by proposing only modest changes to

Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1318399

the power of the General Accounting Office (BI, 1937c). The prospect of an open

disagreement caused alarm among members of the Brownlow Committee, and not only

because the Brookings report threatened to undermine the credibility of the Brownlow

report. Louis Brownlow worried that "the reputation of government research ... for

scientific impartiality is at stake" (Brownlow, 1937a). The next several months

witnessed an unusual effort by the Brownlow Committee to prevent a public conflict by

stopping or modifying the Brookings report. Staff of the Rockefeller Foundation -- also

worried about the "larger interests" that might be jeopardized by a public disagreement --

mediated the conflict. Their attempts to persuade Brookings and Brownlow Committee

staff to stop making charges of political partisanship against one another, so that they

might resolve the disagreement on "intellectual" grounds, ultimately failed. In a final

effort to squash the conflict, Brownlow staff provided friendly Senators with material to

discredit the Brookings report.

Although the Brownlow-Brookings fight has been described by earlier authors,

these earlier accounts have been incomplete, and none has closely considered why all

three parties to the fight -- the Brownlow Committee, the Brookings Institution, and the

Rockefeller Foundation -- went to such lengths to avoid a public disagreement about the

power of the GAO.2 The question is an important one: by answering it, we gain a better

understanding of the preoccupations of social scientists in the 1930’s and the constraints

under which they did their work. In 1937 the community of "specialists in Public

Administration" was new and unfamiliar, and heavily dependent on the Rockefeller

philanthropies for financial support. In order to allay popular skepticism about the

motives of these experts -- and in particular, to alllay popular worries that such specialists

Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1318399

were being used to advance "Rockefeller interests" -- the community had become expert

in making a demonstration of neutrality -- an elaborate combination of statements and

behaviours designed to show that such specialists were not influencing opinion on the

"political" questions that were most important to the public. A public disagreement

between the Brownlow Committee and the Brookings Institution threatened to undermine

the demonstration of neutrality, and thus to undermine the stability of the Public

Administration community itself.


Concerns about the power of the General Accounting Office had been expressed

from the moment the Office was established by the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921.

The Act made the Comptroller General, previously a Treasury Department official, the

head of the new GAO, and changed his tenure in office to fifteen years, which could be

cut short only by a joint resolution of Congress or impeachment. The Act also gave the

Comptroller General the authority to block any disbursement by the Treasury that was

not, in his view, authorized by an act of Congress. Government officials shortly began to

rely on a "pre-audit" -- in which the Comptroller General would review proposed

spending -- in order to avoid situations in which liabilities had been incurred but

disbursements would not be permitted. In 1929 the best-known expert in public

budgeting, Eugene Buck, expressed strong concerns about the inefficiency of the pre-

audit system, and also about the policy-making power which it gave to an official who

was unelected and almost unremoveable. "The General Accounting Office," Buck argued

in 1929, "is becoming a huge establishment which is aiming at complete domination of

all acts of the national administration" (564).

Frustration with the power of the GAO grew after the election of President

Roosevelt in 1932. Officials within the Roosevelt administration believed that the

incumbent Comptroller General, John R. McCarl, was using the pre-audit power to block

New Deal policies. Harold Ickes, Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior and head of the

Public Works Administration, complained that McCarl "is a specialist at making

objections ... [He] is not only a Republican, he is a reactionary Republican" (Ickes, 1954:

222, 335). In September, 1934, a senior official in the National Emergency Council


... [T]he officious intermeddling of the Comptroller General is consistent

only with a policy of complete domination of all government activity by

the General Accounting Office. Using the ambiguous language of the

Budget and Accounting Act as a fulcrum, and the withholding of

"approval" of expenditures as a lever, the Comptroller General seeks to

pry the administration of laws from the executive officers and the

interpretation of laws from the Attorney General (Ironside, 1934).

Rexford Tugwell, one of Roosevelt’s "Brains Trust," complained of McCarl’s "infinite

personal prejudices" and his "harassment of the Executive" (1960: 399), while Tom

Corcoran, a key political advisor, lamented that the Comptroller Generalship had become

"the most powerful office in the Government, barring only the Presidency" (Ickes, 1953:


The three "specialists in Public Administration" who constituted the President’s

Committee on Administrative Management -- Louis Brownlow, Charles Merriam, and

Luther Gulick -- supported Roosevelt’s policies; Richard Polenberg observes that "all

three men sympathized with the New Deal, ardently admired the President, and valued

his friendship" (1966: 16). Brownlow and Merriam were close advisors to administration

officials, particularly to Ickes and Harry Hopkins, head of the Federal Emergency Relief

Administration. McCarl’s ability to frustrate the Roosevelt administration had worried

all three since at least 1934. As members of the Social Science Research Council’s

Advisory Committee on Public Administration -- the "central planning agency" for

academic research in Public Administration in the 1930’s -- they had drafted a research

program that included a proposal for "study of the manner in which [the Comptroller

General] has expanded his activities from the auditing of legality of expenditure to the

exercise of policy-determining functions, and the influence of this on general Recovery

policy" (SSRC, 1934: 7). In the Fall of 1935, the SSRC committee had agreed on the

desirability of hiring Eugene Buck to recommend "modifications in the relationships"

between the GAO and executive agencies (SSRC, 1935: 5).

The Buck study was delayed by another proposal for a study of "overall

management" in the federal government that had been put before the SSRC committee by

Charles Merriam in October, 1935. This broader study, itself motivated by concern about

the President’s ability to coordinate activities in the burgeoning number of New Deal

agencies, preoccupied the SSRC committee in the Winter of 1935-36. The project was

taken over by the newly-appointed President’s Committee on Administrative

Management in March, 1936, after Roosevelt expressed reservations about endorsing a

study that was run by a completely independent SSRC committee. It was clear from the

start, however, that reform of the GAO would be a top priority for the President’s

Committee. In February, Charles Merriam had promised the President that the

Committee would comment on "the arrogation of policy powers by the Comptroller

General" (Eliot, 1936); in another meeting in March, Roosevelt told Brownlow that

"Buck was the man to do that" (Brownlow, 1958: 338). Buck prepared an outline of his

"preliminary recommendations" a few weeks later, which Brownlow discussed with

Roosevelt in early May (Miller, 1938: 8-9; Brownlow Diary, May 5-6, 1936).

Buck’s 1936 proposals were more or less the same as those made in his 1929

textbook, Public Budgeting, and were closely modelled on the system of financial

administration used in the British government. The Treasury Department, he said, should

be built up as a "single great finance department," absorbing the pre-audit power of the

Comptroller General as well as all of the functions of the Budget Bureau; furthermore

Congress should set up a Public Accounts Committee, with a majority of representatives

from the party in opposition to that of the President, to receive the public accounts from

the GAO and review the financial operations of the government (Buck, 1936). Buck’s

final report to the Brownlow Committee in the Fall of 1936 followed the same line. The

President’s Committee itself took a more moderate approach; while it would have

removed the GAO’s pre-audit power, it did not recommend the absorption of the Budget

Bureau into the Treasury Department, and it omitted a recommendation for a Public

Accounts Committee like that proposed by Buck (PCAM, 1937).


In retrospect one can see why the Brookings Institution might have taken a

different attitude toward the GAO. Brookings’ President, the economist Harold Moulton,

and the staff within Brookings’ Institute of Economics, took a dimmer view of key New

Deal policies, and consequently had less reason to be aggravated by McCarl’s

obstructionism. By 1936, Brookings had published studies critical of the National

Recovery Administration and Roosevelt’s macroeconomic policy, and a critique of the

Agricultural Adjustment Administration was in the works (Critchlow, 1985: 121-9).

Moreover Brookings staff had made a defence of the GAO’s powers in the past. William

Willoughby, the first director of Brookings’ Institute for Government Research (IGR),

had been one of the architects of the 1921 Budget and Accounting Act; Eugene Buck

called him the "chief supporter of the Comptroller General’s present position" (1929:

562). Willoughby argued that some external check on Executive action was necessary to

avoid abuse of spending authority, particularly because the President and his Cabinet --

unlike the British Cabinet -- did not depend on the support of the legislative branch

(Willoughby, 1927a and 1927b). Willoughby probably also recognized that Congress

would never have passed the 1921 Act, which broadened the President’s budget-making

authority, if the Comptroller General had not been given extensive oversight powers at

the same time (Critchlow, 1985: 28-38).

Although the roots of the Brownlow-Brookings conflict can be seen in retrospect,

they were not evident to either group in the Spring of 1936. Willoughby had retired from

Brookings in 1932, and the Brownlow camp -- a group of academics organized through

the SSRC committee, as well as professional administrators affiliated with the Public

Administration Clearing House, also headed by Brownlow -- had developed a close

working relationship with Willoughby’s successors in the IGR. Lewis Meriam, a senior

IGR researcher, was a member of the SSRC committee and had helped to draft the

proposal for a study on "overall management." In an early version of the study, Meriam

was to serve as the vice-chairman on the SSRC sub-committee that would guide the

research (Brownlow, 1958: 332). Brownlow had even put forward Harold Moulton’s

name as a candidate for the President’s Committee, but Roosevelt vetoed the idea

(Saunders, 1966: III-14). Indeed, the fact that the IGR had been hired by Congress to

provide advice on administrative reform in 1936 was itself evidence of Brownlow’s

belief that relations between the two groups were harmonious.

Congressional interest in administrative reform was led by Virginia Senator Harry

Byrd, who, hearing rumours about the SSRC’s proposal to the President, had obtained a

resolution striking a Senate committee on administrative reform, and then approached

Brownlow about the idea of a combined project. Brownlow and Roosevelt were not

pleased with the offer: they feared that Byrd, a conservative Democrat disgruntled with

President’s spending on recovery programs, wished to turn the SSRC study into an

economy drive or a critical review of New Deal agencies. Roosevelt and Brownlow,

working with Senate and House leaders, quickly took steps to minimize the damage that

Byrd might do. Fred Powell, the Director of the IGR, reported to Harold Moulton that

the Senate leadership had arranged for Byrd’s committee to be "carefully manned so as to

hobble the Chairman" (Powell, 1936a). Meanwhile the Democratic leadership in the

House of Representatives set up a companion committee, comprised of representatives

"satisfactory to the President" (Brownlow, 1958: 342), to balance the Byrd committee.

Brownlow enlisted the IGR in this effort to contain Harry Byrd. Brownlow first

encouraged Byrd to contract the IGR for staff work, and then collaborated with IGR staff

to create a research plan that would keep the Byrd Committee away from a review of

New Deal policies and the subject of "overall management." According to the plan, the

Byrd Committee would make a "detailed examination of overlapping and conflict"

between government agencies, while the President’s Committee would examine overall

management from the perspective of the Chief Executive. Brownlow had struck upon the

idea of making this "division of labour" almost immediately after learning of Byrd’s

interest in a joint venture with the President’s Committee (Miller, 1938), and the

President had approved it, saying that it would avoid "duplication of effort and

competitive attitudes" (Brownlow Diary, March 13, 1936). Brownlow had then worked

out the details of the plan with Powell and Meriam of the IGR. Powell characterized the

IGR’s half of the project as a "piece-meal approach" because it would proceed "from the

particular to the general, from the parts to the whole." Two weeks later Brownlow,

Powell, and Meriam met with Byrd to persuade him to accept the plan; afterward Powell

reported to Moulton that they "sold the Senator ... the idea of the piece-meal approach,

[and] of limiting ourselves rigidly to avoid the field of policy" (Powell, 1936b).

Whether Brookings’ mandate under this "division of labour" included a study of

the GAO ultimately became a point of contention. Moulton claimed that it did. The

outline that Powell, Meriam, and Brownlow had "sold" to Senator Byrd on March 27 had

included "fiscal administration" as one of the "major institutional fields" to be examined

by the IGR (BI, 1936). A second report to Byrd, also provided to the Brownlow

Committee, pointed out that the subject had been given over to Daniel Selko, a junior

member of the IGR staff who had recently graduated from Yale University (Powell,

1936d). In August, Moulton said, Eugene Buck had tacitly admitted the IGR’s right to

examine the GAO:

... in a conference with Mr. Powell, [Mr. Buck] suggested that the Institute

for Government Research should agree to agree with the findings of the

Brownlow Committee with respect to financial administration. At the

time, neither the analysis of the Brownlow Committee nor of the Institute

for Government Research had been completed ... Naturally the suggestion

was not accepted (Moulton, 1937d).

For its part, the Brownlow Committee claimed that a critical review of the GAO

lay outside of the IGR’s mandate, and that Fred Powell had admitted as much to Joseph

Harris, the Brownlow Committee’s Research Director. A Brownlow Committee

memorandum later claimed that

At a conference between Messrs. Harris, Powell, and Buck on July 10, Dr.

Harris suggested that Brookings make a factual study of the General

Accounting Office (its organization, the activities of each division and

how its work was affected by the emergency program) desired by Buck.

Powell replied that this had better be done by the Committee since

Brookings stood in bad graces at the General Accounting Office. Powell

also said that he doubted that a study of the General Accounting Office

was within Brookings’ terms of reference (Miller, 1938).

This recollection of Powell’s position was probably accurate: in an internal memorandum

to Moulton, Powell said that he had told Brownlow that the IGR would "have nothing to

do with ... the Comptroller General’s office ... We will consider in our scope that part of

the Treasury which is concerned with financial administration" (Powell, 1936c). Of

course, it is not clear that Meriam or Selko shared this understanding about the division

of labour, or that such a division was even tenable.

Once again, these portents of conflict were recognized only in hindsight. Even at

the end of the Summer of 1936, neither the Brownlow Committee nor the IGR seemed

worried about a disagreement in the field of fiscal administration. In late August,

Brookings reported to Senator Byrd that "we are cooperating with the Administrative

Management Committee to the greatest possible extent ... It does not appear that they are

trespassing upon our field or we upon theirs. We have also maintained cordial relations

with Mr. Brownlow" (Powell, 1936e). Two weeks later, Brownlow wrote in his diary

that he was "very pleased that the work being carried on by [the President’s Committee]

... and that being carried on by the Brookings Institution ... as yet presents no problem of

conflict" (Brownlow Diary, September 12, 1936).


By late September, however, the danger of conflict between the two groups had

apparent to the Brownlow Committee. On September 23, the Brownlow Committee and

IGR staff met with Senator Byrd to discuss the progress of the two research projects.

Harold Moulton recalled that "much of the discussion was of an irrelevant character ...

After the meeting was over, Mr. Powell said casually to Mr. Brownlow that the one field

where conflict was most likely to arise, namely, financial administration, had not been

mentioned ..." (Moulton, 1937d). Louis Brownlow, on the other hand, had a quite

different recollection of the meeting: "In an aside to me ... Mr. Selko poured into my ear

what amounted to a passionate defense of the conduct of the General Accounting Office.

This was the first time that I had heard that Brookings might take a different line ... I did

not know until that morning how far apart we were drifting ..." (Brownlow, n.d.: 175).

"It was on next day," Brownlow later said, "that the blow fell." Buck had

completed his report on the GAO, and the three members of the Brownlow Committee --

Brownlow, Luther Gulick, and Charles Merriam -- had gathered to discuss it. Lewis

Meriam had been given a copy of Buck’s report and invited to join the discussion.

Brownlow recalled that Meriam "took a stand of flat opposition to placing control of the

spending operations of the Government in the President ... [He] defended his position for

several hours" (Brownlow, n.d.: 176). Shortly after, Meriam sent the Committee a

memorandum summarizing his complaints. Following the line of argument set down

many years before by William Willoughby, Meriam observed that

Mr. Buck seems to be profoundly influenced by the British organization

and procedure and to be endeavoring to duplicate it in the United States.

From my point of view he does not give due recognition to the fact that

England has a unitary government with a responsible ministry in charge of

administration, whereas in this country we have a government of divided

powers with a chief executive who is not responsible to Congress ... I

myself am a little dubious of an administrative audit made under the

direction of a Cabinet officer who is removable by the President at will. If

the President were responsible to Congress, the situation would be entirely

different (Meriam, 1936).

Meriam also warned the Brownlow Committee against recommendations that would

dramatically upset the balance of power between the President and Congress. Congress,

he warned, was in no mood for such reforms:

To strengthen the President’s control over expenditures is in many

instances to diminish the control of Congress over expenditures. Congress

has been jealous of the power of the Executive. In emergencies it

delegates power; but on the return to normalcy it tends to withdraw these

delegated powers and to assume more control. I think the chance are that

the next few sessions of Congress will run toward increased control by

Congress rather than diminishing control. The President’s Committee

should in my judgement give careful consideration to any

recommendations that look toward diminishing the control of Congress,

because I think such recommendations, if included, will jeopardize the

chances of any other recommendations that require legislation (Meriam,


In the next eight weeks, the Brownlow Committee made two attempts to manage

the imminent clash over the GAO. In early October, Moulton said, Joseph Harris "asked

for a conference with Mr. Selko ... [and] suggested to Mr. Selko that the Brookings

Institution should keep out of this field." Selko referred Harris to Lewis Meriam, who

told Harris that "so far as he could see, it was a settled matter that the Brookings

Institution was to prepare a report covering this field, and that if any change of policy

were to be made it would have to be taken up with Mr. Powell as director of the

investigation ... Mr. Harris never presented the matter to Mr. Powell" (Moulton, 1937d).

In November, after hearing a rumour from the Budget Bureau director that the Brookings

report would "gut the Treasury," Gulick and Brownlow were each prompted to talk with

Powell about the need for a conference about the GAO. Powell agreed, but neither

Gulick or Brownlow called back to set a date (Gulick, 1936a; Moulton, 1937c).

There are probably several reasons why the Brownlow Committee did not follow

through on these attempts to forestall a clash on policy. Perhaps the most obvious is that

the Committee and its staff were preoccupied with the task of completing a draft of their

report so that it could be delivered to the President shortly after the November 3 election.

The Committee may also have believed that Brookings was less likely to object to its

own recommendations on fiscal administration, which were more moderate than Buck’s.

The potential conflict may also have slipped from the Committee’s attention as

communications between the two groups broke down in the Fall of 1936. Brownlow had

been determined to keep the work of his committee out of the public eye until after the

presidential election, so that it would have a "non-political setting and effect" (1958:

328), and to this end had imposed strict rules against the circulation of its working

papers, to which the IGR staff had been the only exception. The quarantine seemed to be

effective until late October, when a report critical of the Brownlow Committee’s work

appeared in the New York Herald Tribune. Arthur Holcombe, a Harvard political

scientist working for the Committee, found the story so accurate that "I inferred it must

have been more than an unintended leak -- possibly a deliberate release from the White

House" (Holcombe, 1936). A little later the Brownlow Committee, suspecting that the

documents they were sending to Brookings "were leaking to the Senate Committee and

were being used against them in the public press," stopped sending drafts to the IGR for

comment (May, 1937).

The Brownlow Committee may also have believed that it would be possible to

deter Harry Byrd from defending the Comptroller General, and thus to limit the uses to

which an IGR report on the GAO might be put. Even in late September, after it had

become clear that the IGR would disagree with the Brownlow Committee about the role

of the Comptroller General, Brownlow and Gulick still "hoped that the Senator would see

the problem of the General Accounting Office as we saw it" (Brownlow, n.d.: 176).

After the election, this hope had begun to evaporate: the Committee had heard rumours

that "Byrd was planning to hold hearings and put McCarl on the stand" (Gulick, 1936a).

McCarl himself, at the end of his fifteen-year term, had made an open attack on

Roosevelt in the Saturday Evening Post, calling the New Deal "a wasteful Santa Claus

Plan of ’government-run-everything’" (McCarl, 1936).

Gulick and Brownlow had considered how to forestall Byrd’s GAO hearings with

Roosevelt in a meeting on November 14. Gulick reported that the President told them...

to see Harry, and see if he would play ball with the program. Though the terms were not

specifically outlined, I gathered that they would involve (1) no public hearings, (2) no

opposition program, (3) letting the President lead off, and (4) support the President’s

plans when presented. The President said, "If Harry will work with you and with me on

this he can introduce the bill in the Senate and carry it through. I would be glad to have

him." He told us to see what we could do to work this out (Gulick, 1936a).

A few days afterward, Gulick met with Byrd to negotiate a truce. Gulick later reported to

Roosevelt that Byrd had promised to "do nothing ... to step out in front or make trouble";

in particular, Byrd had promised that the hearings with McCarl would not be held. In

return, Byrd was given two assurances: that Roosevelt would meet with him in December

to "discuss next steps and legislative plans", and that the Committee itself would meet

with Byrd the next week to discuss the reorganization proposals (Gulick, 1936b).

By early January this agreement had fallen apart. The Brownlow Committee

never met with Byrd, and a luncheon meeting between Roosevelt, Gulick, and Byrd on

January 2 only aggravated the division. Roosevelt did not seem to want a reconciliation:

Gulick observed that the President "chose to confine his attention to subjects where he

knew real disagreement lay, and by pricking his adversary insistently managed to draw

blood" (Karl, 1963: 254). Byrd left the meeting angry, and Roosevelt made no further

attempt to maintain a peace. Byrd was not invited to the January 10 meeting at which

Democratic Congressional leaders were briefed on the proposals, and received the report

only a few hours before its public release on January 11. Byrd complained to Roosevelt:

It was my understanding [at the January 2 meeting] that either Mr.

Brownlow or Mr. Gulick would call to see me in the following week so

that I could understand in more detail the proposals recommended by

them. Due, I have no doubt, to the pressure of their work I did not seem

them until [January 11], and this was too late to see you before the

recommendations were made. I regret this as I would like the opportunity

to discuss certain details of the report ... I am anxious to convey to you

information obtained on some of these questions by the Brookings

Institution ... (Byrd, 1937).

Although Byrd shortly issued a press release indicating strong skepticism about the

Brownlow Committee’s GAO recommendations, in fact he had not yet received the

IGR’s report on the Comptroller General. In December, Fred Powell had told Byrd that

senior IGR staff "are giving their attention to the subject which you have indicated as the

first on which you wish to hold hearings, namely, the financial services ... The date we

are aiming at is January 10th" (Powell, 1936f). By January 12, however, Selko’s paper

on financial administration still had not been sent to Capitol Hill.


With its own report now made public and Byrd's opposition to it probable, the

Brownlow Committee renewed its attempts to persuade Brookings to withhold or modify

Selko’s report. On January 11, shortly after Roosevelt’s press conference on the

Brownlow report, Luther Gulick phoned Harold Moulton to propose a discussion

between the staffs on the subject of financial administration. Moulton seemed non-

plussed by the conversation: he said later that he had told Gulick he would be "very glad

to arrange for such a conference at any convenient time" (Moulton, 1937d). Gulick,

however, was rattled by the intensity of Moulton’s feeling about the Brownlow

recommendations. The next day, he wrote to Moulton:

After we hung up it occurred to me what you had in mind in referring to

the non-American aspects of our fiscal recommendations. At the time I

was completely flabbergasted. I realize now that you were harking back

to the discussion we had with Lewis Meriam, and that he had assumed and

passed on to you the information that we were proceeding 100 percent

along the lines of the program presented in the memorandum by A.E.

Buck. The final program is, as you see, quite different in character ... it

rests in no sense on the Parliamentary system.

As you said on the telephone, I hope that you will offer the

opportunity for a full discussion on the theory and practice of audit and

control. This problem was, as you know, squarely at the centre of our

assignment. It does not seem to me that it comes at all within the terms of

reference of the Byrd committee ... It may well be that my suggestion on

this point is out of order in case a study in this field will not be undertaken

by the Brookings’ staff (Gulick, 1937b).

Gulick’s suggestion that the IGR might yet abandon its report on the Comptroller

General was perhaps impolitic; but this was soon overwhelmed by a second and much

grander error. On January 12, Gulick wrote to Frederic Delano, the Chairman of

Brookings’ Board of Trustees, to ask for his assistance in influencing Moulton. Delano

was the President’s uncle and a long-time acquaintance of Louis Brownlow and Charles

Merriam. "I should report to you a conversation I have just had with Harold G. Moulton

about the Brookings’ report for Byrd," Gulick wrote:

... Moulton said that apparently there was only one major point of collision

and that that had to do with the General Accounting Office. I observed

that this was within our major field work, that it was not within the field of

the Byrd Committee, and that it seemed to me of great importance for

them to have a full discussion with us before the Brookings Institution

came out in opposition to the program presented by the President.

Moulton did not agree to this ...

I do not know whether the President of Brookings Institution has

any responsibility in matters of this sort but it does seem to me that Dr.

Moulton, who is not an accountant nor a student of Public Administration,

should be in some way induced to hear both sides before embarking the

Institution on a course of action which is bound to bring upon it much

criticism from informed circles (Gulick, 1937a).

Delano passed Gulick’s letter on to Harold Moulton on January 13. Moulton was

infuriated. "[T]he purpose of the letter," he complained, "was to bring pressure upon

[me] to bring pressure in turn upon the Institute for Government Research to refrain from

arriving at conclusions contrary to those of the President’s Committee" (Moulton,

1937d). It was particularly aggravating to Moulton that Delano had served as the

intermediary. Moulton had nominated Delano to be Chairman of the Board after the

1932 election, with the expectation that he might build a bridge to the new

administration; but in succeeding years Delano had become disgruntled about the temper

of Brookings’ reports on New Deal policies. He had badgered Moulton to take a more

sympathetic view of the administration -- an appeal which Moulton rejected, telling

Delano that "sympathy has no more place than antipathy in the scientific approach to a

problem" (Moulton, 1935). Privately, Moulton complained that Delano had "expressed

regret in Institution publications to individuals around Washington" -- and also that he

had "helped the Brownlow group to edge into the Federal Government field, though this

has been the major field of the I.G.R." (Moulton, 1937e).


Unwilling to respond directly to Gulick or to rely on Delano as a go-between,

Moulton sought another intermediary: the Rockefeller Foundation. In the next few days,

Moulton circulated Gulick’s letter to three people -- Edmund Day, the director of the

Rockefeller Foundation’s Social Science Division; Stacy May, an associate director of

the Social Science Divison; and Jerome Greene, a retired banker who served on the

Brookings and Rockefeller Foundation Boards. The Foundation had well-established

connections with both Brookings and the "Brownlow group." It had been Brookings’

principal benefactor since its establishment in 1927, providing more than $3.5 million

over ten years. It was also the only source of money for the SSRC Public Administration

Committee; and an associated Rockefeller philanthropy, the Spelman Fund, funded

Brownlow’s Public Administration Clearing House. In fact, the Rockefeller Foundation

had almost funded both GAO studies. Brownlow’s plan of asking the Rockefeller

Foundation to support a study of "overall management" had been vetoed by Roosevelt,

who worried that "the name of Rockefeller in connection with such a study would have a

bad effect on the Hill" (Eliot, 1936). The IGR did ask for Rockefeller support, but was

turned down: Stacy May had explained to Moulton that the Foundation’s trustees

believed "the project was sufficiently charged politically to make it likely that the use of

outside funds would come in for criticism, damaging alike to the contributing agency and

to the general end which the project was seeking to promote" (May, 1936).

Between January and March, 1937, Stacy May struggled to be a peace-maker

between Brookings and the Brownlow Committee. It was not an easy job. In early

March he lamented to senior Rockefeller staff that "each of the parties has been deluging

me with accusations about the other at frequent intervals" (May, 1937). Some of the

complaints were procedural: each side complained, for example, that the other side had

failed to circulate its drafts for comments; and of course Moulton complained that Gulick

had acted improperly by asking Delano to put pressure on the Institution. But most of the

complaints consisted of challenges to the objectivity of the other party. May observed

that each side "seems desirous of having the Foundation accept its position as objective

and of scientific validity ... [and] neither is able to make its case without a rather bitter

denunciation of the motives actuating the other":

... the Brookings group insisted that the stand upon the Comptroller

General taken by the President’s Committee merely represented a partisan

attack on the part of the Administration on McCarl’s regime, while the

President’s Committee summarized the Brookings position as the

reflection of a hostile attitude toward the New Deal (May, 1937).

May eventually persuaded the two groups that the hostilities could not continue,

telling Moulton that "it would be unfortunate to the larger interests which both he and the

President’s Committee were seeking to serve if the experts disagreed upon important

issues" (May, 1937). Moulton agreed not to deliver Selko’s report to Congress "without

first holding a conference with the President’s Committee group and open-mindedly

attempting to resolve the point at issue" (May, 1937). A short while later, Gulick wrote

to Moulton to apologize for his earlier letters:

I learned last night when I ran into a mutual friend at a social affair that

my recent letter to you and Mr. Delano were contradictory and unfair and

that you were deeply incensed and felt that I had dealt dishonestly with

you. Good God, that is the last thing I had in my mind! ... May I say

immediately, in all sincerity that I deeply regret whatever it is that I have

done wrong, and trust you will accept this apology now ... I shall see you

at the next opportunity. One thing is certain, for the sake of the future, I

do not wish to leave matters in a mess either through misunderstanding, or

through any fault of mine (Gulick, 1937c).

Moulton accepted the apology, expressing the hope that "our relations may continue to be

cordial," and telling Gulick that he had already been in touch with Brownlow to arrange a

conference on the question of the GAO (Moulton, 1937a).


For the next two weeks Moulton and Brownlow, both incapacitated with the flu,

looked fruitlessly for some convenient time to hold their conference on financial

administration. In the meantime, the Brookings Institution was coming under heavy

pressure from all sides. At a meeting of the Brookings trustees, Frederic Delano again

complained about the Institution’s hostile attitude toward the Roosevelt administration,

telling the Board that

... the Institution would accomplish far more if it endeavored to adjust

itself to the aims of The President and the Government ... The President

needed all the help he could secure, and the Brookings Institution would

prove far more influential if it tried to be sympathetic and constructive in

its criticisms rather than taking an attitude of condemnation of almost

everything that was suggested (BI, 1937a).

Other board members replied that Brookings could not do what Delano had asked; that

instead it had to maintain "a position of complete impartiality" (BI, 1937a).

Meanwhile Brookings was also being called to account by Senator Byrd, who was

waiting for a report that Fred Powell had promised would be available in early January.

A Joint Senate-House Committee on Government Organization had been set up to receive

the Brownlow report in early February, but when it began hearings on February 18, the

Selko report still had not been released. Despite Byrd’s pressure, Moulton stuck to the

commitment he had made to Stacy May. At a lunch with the three members of the

Brownlow Committee on February 17, Moulton explained that "it was impossible for us

to withdraw from the field," but again promised that Selko’s paper would not be given to

Congress before it had been reviewed by the Brownlow Committee and its staff. Selko’s

manuscript was delivered to Brownlow two days later (Moulton, 1937d).

Moulton continued to resist Congressional pressure while he waited for the

Brownlow group to re-type and read Selko’s manuscript. On February 26, Moulton

warned Brownlow that

... A possible problem has just arisen about which I think you should be

informed ... In view of the discussions now beginning with respect to

accounting practices, Senator Byrd has asked, through the clerk of his

Committee, for our recommendations ... We have sent word through the

clerk of the Committee that our final conclusions have not yet matured and

that we wish to hold a conference with your group with respect to certain

issues before submitting our final analysis. There is likely to be some

pressure for expediting the submission of our report (Moulton, 1937d).

This turned out to prescient, for on the same day Byrd wrote to Fred Powell advising that

he was "anxious" to receive the GAO report "as soon as possible ... so that the Joint

Committee can have the benefit of the recommendations made by the Brookings

Institution" (Moulton, 1937d). At the same time John Cochran, the chairman of the

House Committee that had been struck in 1936 as a counterweight to the Byrd

Committee, wrote to Moulton demanding that Brookings "furnish a complete report

covering the matters and things which you contracted to report upon" (Cochran, 1937).

On March 1, Byrd phoned Moulton to repeat his demand for the report:

[Byrd] stated that he understood that copies of our report on financial

administration had been released to the Brownlow Committee and that he

saw no reason why his Committee should not be equally entitled to the

report in view of the fact that it was done under their auspices. He stated

also that if conferences were to be held with the Brownlow Committee, a

similar privilege ought to be afforded to his Committee (Moulton, 1937d).

On March 3, Moulton compromised. He sent Selko’s paper to Byrd and Cochran, but

warned that "[it] is subject to possible modifications in light of the conference to be held

with members of the Brownlow Committee ... it should not as yet be made available to

the public" (Moulton, 1937b).


Moulton’s decision to release the Selko report to Byrd and Cochran very nearly

scuttled the conference with the Brownlow Committee. May told his colleagues in the

Rockefeller Foundation that Brownlow and Gulick had accused Moulton of "a breach of

good faith [in sending] materials to Byrd without the promised consultation ... There was

some debate as to whether, under the circumstances, they should confer with Brookings

in the matter, but finally they decided to" (May, 1937). The conference was set for

March 8 at Brookings’ headquarters in Jackson Park.

The discussion, which lasted for three hours, had an antiseptic character: the main

considerations which had impelled the two groups to take contrary positions on the GAO

were carefully avoided. The Brownlow group had been frustrated by John McCarl’s

obstructionism, but nowhere in Gulick’s background note was McCarl’s name

mentioned; nor was there any mention of the roadblocks which he had thrown in front of

New Deal policies. Instead, the Brownlow group appealed to administrative principle,

arguing that "there can be no efficient or responsible organization for the performance of

extensive tasks unless there be at the head of the organization a single executive ... [T]his

is true of all large scale human enterprises ... A single center of executive and

administrative responsibility is essential" (Gulick, 1937d). Brookings also avoided any

reference to McCarl’s performance of Comptroller General, or to its own skepticism

about Congress’ willingness to brook radical changes to the GAO. Instead it argued on

the much narrower ground that the Comptroller General’s pre-audit power did not

"inevitably delay administration," and that inefficiencies would persist even if pre-

auditing authority was transferred to the Treasury Department (BI, 1937b).

"The conference got nowhere," May reported afterward, "each side being unable

to convince the other" (1937). The IGR staff had refused to withhold its report or to

modify its recommendations on the GAO. Badly agitated by the failure of the meeting,

Brownlow wrote a memorandum to Moulton attempting once again to change his mind:

Mr. Gulick and I have been talking over the points raised in the conference

Tuesday afternoon ... The theoretical problems seem to us to be plain:

Does the executive need a comptroller as a part of his administration? Is

control an inseparable part of management? Is responsibility for

administration confused or diffused by an independent control? ... On

these matters your staff apparently has taken a position which is not shared

by any impartial student of the problem with whom we have had any

contact ... In the state organization surveys done by Brookings, as nearly

as we can understand, you have recommended on general grounds of fiscal

and administrative principles the separation of audit and control, and have

endeavoured to make audit independent and control a part of the executive

branch ... (Brownlow, 1937b)

In a passage that was excised from the final draft of this memorandum, Brownlow

warned of the damage that might be done if the Brookings dissented from the Brownlow

Committee’s recommendations:

... it [is] of the utmost importance that the "doctors" do not disagree on

technical matters, as this disagreement will be used by opponents of any

reform to confuse the issue. This is not a responsibility which can be

passed off lightly. It may be that the reputation of government research ...

for scientific impartiality is at stake (Brownlow, 1937a).

Moulton agreed to meet with Brownlow once again on March 12, in a last attempt

to change Brookings’ course. This conference also proved ineffective; Moulton told

Brownlow that their differences "appeared to be of an irreconcilable character" (1937d).

The IGR would not be swayed by the argument that it had made contrary

recommendations to state government; Moulton observed that states faced "simpler

conditions" and that the IGR was not sure its recommendations to state governments were

right in any case (Moulton, 1937c). Moulton did, however, make one final concession to

Brownlow. Although the IGR’s report "would have to be submitted to the House and

Senate Committees," Moulton promised that it would "refrain from making any attack

upon the Brownlow Committee’s report, even though by so doing we would in some

measure weaken the effectiveness of our own presentation" (Moulton, 1937d).


Moulton shortly reached the conclusion that the Brownlow Committee had not

reciprocated the courtesy which he had extended. The Joint Committee on Government

Organization had begun its hearings on the GAO on March 11. The Brownlow

Committee and Eugene Buck had appeared as the committee's first witnesses, and on

March 29 Lewis Meriam and Daniel Selko were called to testify on the IGR’s report. It

became clear that the Democratic leadership on the Committee, led by Senator James

Byrnes, intended to undermine Brookings’ report by attacking the credibility of Meriam

and Selko. Selko, the youngest witness for either side, was closely examined on his

experience in financial administration. Meriam, meanwhile, was asked to explain why

Brookings had recommended the continuation of an independent pre-audit in the federal

government when its staff had made different recommendations in earlier reports for state

governments. Meriam’s protest that the IGR’s views on the Comptroller General had not

changed since 1921, and that it had refined its opinion about the best system for state

governments, fell on deaf ears; the imputation that the IGR had tailored its

recommendations in order to obstruct the President was direct. "When did this change

come on," Senator Pat Harrison asked:

Did the President’s recommendation to Congress to effect the

reorganization, and the action of the Committee that was appointed by the

President to make the recommendation here -- did that have any influence

on your recommendations? (Joint Committee, 1937: 324)

Moulton knew that the questions that had been asked about Brookings’ earlier reports

were beyond the ordinary knowledge of a member of Congress. Incensed, he wrote a

long complaint to Stacy May about the conduct of the Brownlow group, culminating in

the claim that it had "supplied certain Committee members with questions and data

designed to embarrass our representatives and to becloud the objective consideration of

the issues involved" (Moulton, 1937d).

The charge that the Brownlow group had helped Senators in this way was a very

serious one, for it suggested that members of that group had breached the convention

which required that academics keep at arm’s length from political struggles. This was a

rule which both sides in the Brownlow-Brookings debate professed to follow. Harold

Moulton later assured his own trustees that "the Institution in no way participated in

congressional discussions ... [beyond] the presentation of our analysis ... We refused to

render Senator Byrd any assistance in connection with his subsequent statements on the

issues involved" (BI, 1938); and similarly Louis Brownlow later claimed that his

Committee "didn’t lobby. No member of the Committee went near the Capitol ... No

member of the Committee saw or spoke to any Member of Congress except under the

circumstances of being in a Committee called for the purpose ..." (Brownlow, 1940).

Moulton was challenging Brownlow’s claim of detachment from the Congressional fight.

The Brownlow Committee quickly prepared its own memorandum to the

Rockefeller Foundation defending its conduct. Moulton’s charge that questions had been

supplied to Committee members was "wholly unwarranted and untrue," Joseph Harris

said; but this defence was tenable only in the narrowest sense. It was true that Brownlow

Committee researchers had compiled excerpts from earlier Brookings studies which

seemed to conflict with Selko’s report, and that this summary of excerpts had been

supplied to Senator Byrnes. The damning questions could easily be inferred from this

material. For doing this much, Harris was unrepentant. "The representatives of the

Brookings Institution went out of their way to oppose the recommendations of the

President’s Committee on Administrative Management," he told May, "[I]t would hardly

appear inappropriate for this fact to be brought out in the hearings" (Harris, 1937).


Between January and March, 1937, three groups -- the Brownlow Committee and

its staff, the Brookings Institution, and the Rockefeller Foundation -- collaborated in an

unusual effort to avoid a public disagreement over reform of the General Accounting

Office. Why did they go to such lengths to avoid a conflict?

Part of the explanation, certainly, is that the Brownlow Committee wanted to see

its own recommendations on the GAO adopted by Congress, that it recognized how a

contrary report by the IGR might undermine its own advice, and that it consequently had

an interest in doing what it could to suppress or modify the IGR’s report. However, this

explanation is also incomplete, because it leaves critical questions unanswered. Are we

certain, for example, that the Brownlow Committee was worried only about the narrow

problem of getting its way on the GAO? And how do we account for the collaboration of

the other two parties to this dispute? Why, for example, was the Brookings Institution

prepared to burn bridges with its Congressional clients by withholding its own report

from them for two months? And why was the Rockefeller Foundation staff prepared to

mediate this dispute, when it had no immediate investment in either report? What were

the "larger interests" that it believed to be at stake?

To answer these questions, we might begin by observing that all three parties to

the dispute shared a common preoccupation: a strong desire to avoid entanglement in

"political" activity. Throughout 1936 and 1937 we see behaviour that is accounted for in

this way. Brownlow, for example, schedules the completion date for his Committee’s

report for after the 1936 election, so that it "will have a non-political setting and effect";

Moulton resists Frederic Delano’s protests, and refuses to give aid to Senator Byrd, so

that the IGR can make a show of "complete impartiality"; the Rockefeller Foundation

refuses to give money to projects that it thinks will be "politically charged." The same

preoccupation is manifest in conversation between the three actors. It is evident, for

example, in the terms they used to praise and condemn one another. At Stacy May

discovered, the highest praise that one could give to colleagues was to call them

"impartial" or "objective," and the most damning thing that one could say against them

was to accuse them of "partisanship" or "hostile attitudes." Discussion of substantive

issues -- such as the question of what to do about the GAO -- is carefully constructed to

avoid reference to "political" arguments. One’s opinions on reform of the GAO might

have been coloured by frustration with John McCarl, or doubts about Congress’

willingness to make radical changes to the GAO; but these were "political" facts whose

salience could not be explicitly acknowledged. To be "open-minded," one had to shut out

certain kinds of arguments, and instead rationalize one’s stance by appeal to scientific

principle or neutral values such as "efficiency."

Louis Brownlow, Harold Moulton, and the staff of the Rockefeller Foundation

spent a large proportion of their time "keeping up appearances" -- in particular,

demonstrating their neutrality in the political struggles that were foremost in public

attention. The demonstration comprised both behaviour and speech: not only did these

parties profess to be "impartial" or "objective," they also shaped their work routines, and

their way of thinking and talking about the subject of Public Administration, in order to

substantiate that claim to neutrality.

The practice of making this demonstration of neutrality was as old as the field of

Public Administration itself; which is to say, it was not very old at all, for Public

Administration had emerged as a distinct field of study only in the last fifteen years. In

fact the demonstration of neutrality may have had such importance to specialists in Public

Administration precisely because it was a new field, whose aims were not understood or

skeptically regarded by a broader public. The demonstration was used to allay worries

that such specialists were seizing jurisdiction over questions that properly belonged in the

public domain.

Brownlow, as one of the main builders of the Public Administration community,

knew this skepticism well. As a city manager in the early 1920’s, he recalled in 1936,

"some people called me a czar, a dictator. People who objected to me or my work on any

ground whatever talked about czarisms and dictatorships" (Brownlow, 1936). The same

distrust was directed toward the City Managers’ Association, led by Brownlow, whose

advocacy in favour of the city-manager plan was often regarded with extreme hostility.

To allay such skepticism, Brownlow had personally proclaimed his adherence to a

"fundamental theory of government ... that there is and always will be a difference

between politics, on the one hand, and administration, on the other" (1958: 236), and then

insisted that he and other city managers should not tread in the realm of "politics," where

the difficult decisions about public objectives had to be made. In 1924 the CMA

adopted, at Brownlow’s urging, a code of ethics dictating that "no city manager should

take an active part in politics" (Reed, 1926: 240). The idea that there was a tenable

distinction between "political" and "administrative" work -- now known in shorthand as

the "politics-administration dichotomy" -- was the philosophical foundation upon which

the demonstration of neutrality was based. In an effort to make manifest its commitment

to the dichotomy, the CMA itself abandoned any advocacy work that might seem to put it

in a "political position" (Brownlow, 1958: 237).

Brownlow continued to espouse his belief in the dichotomy as Director of the

Public Administration Clearing House, which was established in Chicago in 1930 as a

coordinating agency for professional associations in the field of Public Administration.

A 1936 press release had explained that associations affiliated with the Clearing House

"are working on practical, everyday problems of administering the public business, as

distinct from governmental problems of policies ... These organizations ... are not

concerned either with policies or politics" (Brownlow Diary, January 16, 1936).

Brownlow cut off support to associations that he believed were engaged in "political

action" (Diary, August 11, 1936).

Brownlow showed a similar sensitivity toward "political" questions as head of the

the SSRC’s Committee on Public Administration. The Council, established in 1924, had

encountered the same sort of resistance as the City Managers’ Association, and had

responded to it in roughly the same way, by assuring the public of its "impartiality and

objectivity" on policy questions, and by couching its activity as "technical" work akin to

that in the natural sciences. Brownlow had carried on this practice in crafting the Public

Administration Committee’s research agenda. His objective, he told one federal

administrator, was not to assess the wisdom of the policies adopted by governments, but

merely to study the technical issues raised in their implementation, and thus to build up a

"fundamental body of principles" of effective administration (Brownlow, 1935).

The Public Administration Clearing House and the SSRC both were both

financially dependent upon two Rockefeller philanthropies -- the Rockefeller Foundation

and the smaller Spelman Fund -- and their preoccupation with making a demonstration of

their detachment from "political" activities may also be attributed to public skepticism

about the motives of those philanthropies (See Roberts, 1994). Early attempts by the

Rockefeller philanthropies to sponsor research on social or economic questions had

ended in scandal, and for several years the trustees of these funds refused to sponsor any

sort of work on "contentious issues" at all (Fosdick, 1952). Their eventual support of the

Clearing House and its affiliated associations was given with the strict condition that

these organizations should be focussed entirely on "technical, non-political objectives"

(Moffett, 1937). Similarly, support for social scientific research was limited to

"obviously impartial agencies" who approached their work in a "scientific spirit" and

avoided any sort of advocacy work in favour of social or economic reforms (Bulmer and

Bulmer, 1981).

By 1937, all of the constituents of the Public Administration community were

engaged in a massive and continuing attempt to demonstrate their detachment and

disinterest in "politics." Relations the Brownlow Committee and the Brookings

Institution cannot be properly understood without an appreciation of this fact. It is likely,

for example, that the disagreement would never have arisen if the Brownlow Committee

had not enlisted the Brookings Institution in its effort to steer Senator Byrd away from

"the field of policy" and thus to depoliticize the Committee's work. The conflict may also

have been aggravated by the Brownlow Committee’s decision to limit circulation of its

papers -- a step also taken to avoid politicization of the Committee. Similarly, the

eventual disagreement between Brownlow and Brookings became problematic because it

threatened to undermine the claim that administrative reform was a "technical" subject

over which there could be no disagreement. Disagreement created the evidence with

which critics might charge either of the groups with political bias: for if there was only

one "technical" solution to a problem, but two solutions had been advanced, then clearly

one or the other had to be motivated by some improper purpose.

It was this worry about the politicization of Public Administration which

motivated the Brownlow Committee and the Brookings Institution to go to such lengths

to keep their disagreement completely private. The complaints to Stacy May -- in which

each group of researchers complained about the bias of the other -- presaged what public

debate might be like if the disagreement were not patched over. Obviously neither group

wished to undermine the power of its own report by creating an opportunity for such

charges to be made against it. But this was not the only worry: there was also the distinct

possibility that charges of partisanship would contaminate not only the reports, but the

various organizations within the Public Administration community, such as the Clearing

House, the SSRC committee, and the IGR. It may have been this broader problem that

Louis Brownlow had in mind when he warned that "the reputation of government

research ... for scientific impartiality" was at stake. A similar worry undoubtedly

motivated the staff of the Rockefeller Foundation, even though they had no direct interest

in either GAO study: if any of the organizations which they funded became recognized as

"political" actors, then old complaints about the philanthropies’ own engagement in

political work might again be raised, and the ability of the philanthropies to support

expansion of the Public Administration community might be compromised.

Of course, the character of the mediation undertaken between January and March

of 1937 was also influenced by the need to maintain a demonstration of neutrality. In

hindsight, we can see that the disagreement over the GAO was profoundly political:

differences of opinion about the need for reform were rooted in differences of opinion

about the importance of the New Deal and the willingness of Congress to change the

Budget and Accounting Act. What is peculiar about the conversation between the

Brownlow Committee and Brookings, however, is that these sorts of considerations went

entirely unmentioned. Instead, the two groups attempted to reach consensus by appeal to

efficiency, or scientific principle, or professional consensus. To be consistent in

maintaining an appearance of neutrality, both sides had to limit themselves to these sorts

of arguments, even if it might have impaired their ability to attend to the real differences

between the two groups.

Once the attempt at mediation failed, it was perhaps inevitable that one side

would seek to undermine confidence in the competence or impartiality of the other side's

report. The alternative was to tolerate two contradictory reports, ostensibly derived from

the same set of generally-accepted scientific principles. Skeptical audiences might

wonder whether there were, indeed, such principles, and whether Public Administration

was, as the experts claimed, a purely technical field of study. The Public Administration

community's standing in debates over administrative reform was tenuous enough without

this sort of skepticism. The demonstration of neutrality had to be maintained; and thus it

became necessary to discredit groups or individuals who put forward views that

challenged orthodox opinion.


The Brownlow Committee’s proposals for administrative reform -- which

spanned many subjects other than reform of the GAO -- generated intense controversy on

Capitol Hill, and were finally rejected by the Senate in April, 1938 (See Polenberg,

1966). The Brookings report may have contributed to the controversy: Harvey

Mansfield, a researcher for the Brownlow Committee, later argued that it "furnished

ammunition" to the President’s opponents (1970: 473). Peri Arnold has recently

observed that

The Brownlow Committee's best defense for its recommendations lay in

their connection to principles of good administration. However, where the

Brookings Institution disagreed with the committee's recommendations,

the appearance of a theoretical conception of good administration

vanished. Thus it became easy to portray the Brownlow recommendations

as arbitrary preferences, dependent on one's view of executive power for

their legitimacy rather than on administrative theory (1986: 111).

However, there were many other reasons why Congress balked at the Brownlow

recommendations, and it would be misleading to put too much weight on Brookings’

responsibility for the defeat (See Polenberg, 1966).

The bad will that had built up between the Brownlow group and the Brookings

Institution did not dissipate quickly. The embers were stirred up again in June, 1938,

when Lindsay Rogers -- a Columbia University political scientist who was also a

researcher for the Brownlow Committee -- published a review of the legislative battle in

the Political Science Quarterly. Rogers repeated the charge that Brookings had

"recanted" from the position which it had taken in earlier reports, and asked:

Did the recantation take place early or late -- before or after it was known

that the President’s experts wanted to do something about the Comptroller

General? ... What the psychologists call competitive habits may not work

on experts and lead one group unconsciously to challenge the opinions of

another group, but two later reports by the Brookings Institution traversed

the President’s Committee’s recommendations on the independent

regulatory commissions and civil service administration. The President’s

Committee, with its members closely adhering to previously expressed

opinions, made recommendations that the Chief Executive approved. The

Brookings Institution made recommendations that Senator Byrd approved

... A similar clash of ’expert’ opinion [might be avoided] the next time the

President orders an inquiry ... if, after their appointment, the Presidential

and Congressional experts swapped employers before they began their

work ... (1938a: 167).

Although Rogers’ comment was as much a critique of the claims to impartiality of the

Brownlow Committee as of Brookings, Moulton again took umbrage, and in private

correspondence complained to Rogers about his "smart crack ... intended to convey the

impression that the differences [between Brookings and Brownlow] are not of an

intellectual character" (Moulton 1938a; 1938b). Rogers replied:

There was no intent to "convey the impression that the differences are not

of an intellectual character." Would you say, to take an extreme

illustration, that when opposing counsel in a law suit work on the same

materials and come to diametrically opposed points of view their

differences are not of an intellectual character? (1938b)

Rogers’ example was extreme: in fact it might be argued that the Public

Administration community had spent much of the last decade attempting to persuade the

public that they were not like lawyers at all. That is what the demonstration of neutrality

had been intended to do -- to show a broad audience that such specialists were not

attempting to manipulate opinion to their advantage, or advance the interests of one group

over another, or give only a partial view of the arguments for or against a particular

decision. The demonstration of neutrality was essential to the growth of the field of the

Public Administration, but it imposed a price: it denied them the liberty to act or think as

lawyers did. In other words, the behaviour of specialists in Public Administration was

constrained by the need to maintain the demonstration of neutrality. The Brookings-

Brownlow debate provides an illustration of this. A disagreement about financial

administration became intensely problematic because it threatened to undermine a

carefully-crafted show of detachment from the realm of "politics"; and in an effort to

maintain that show, the constituents of the Public Administration community went to

great lengths to eliminate the disagreement.


1. The fullest account of the legislative struggle is provided by Richard Polenberg

(1966). Other, briefer recountings of the struggle may be found in numerous histories of

the Roosevelt administration, as well in recollections by members of the Brownlow

Committee's research staff, such as those by Herbert Emmerich (1950) and Harvey

Mansfield (1970), and also in some contemporary journal articles, such as those by

Lindsay Rogers (1939) -- who also a member of the Committee's research staff -- and

J.M. Ray (1939). Extensive studies of the Brownlow Committee's work have also been

made by Barry Dean Karl (1966) and Peri Arnold (1986), but these has focussed

primarily on the intellectual history of the ideas embodied in the Committee's final report.

2. The earlier accounts are provided by Barry Dean Karl (1963: 251-56), Richard

Polenberg (1966: 35-41), Donald Critchlow (1985: 129-34), and Peri Arnold (1986: 110-

114). The Karl, Polenberg, and Arnold accounts draw primarily on archival material

from the Brownlow Committee and the Roosevelt administration, while Critchlow's

draws primarily on archival material from the Brookings Institution. This paper draws

more extensively from both sources, and adds previously unused material from the

Rockefeller Foundation Archives. It stresses more heavily that all of the parties to this

fight were preoccupied with larger concerns about the status of the nascent community of

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