Legislative Branch

Guide to Senate Records: Chapter 7 Interstate Commerce

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Chapter 7. Records of the Committee on Commerce and Related Committees, 1816-1968

Records of Committees Relating to Commerce, 1816-1988 from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States

Committee records discussed in this chapter:
Records of the Committee on Interstate Commerce, 1887-1946
Photograph of Shelby M. Cullom, Mathew Brady Studio, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer (RG 111)
Photograph of Shelby M. Cullom, Mathew Brady Studio, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer (RG 111) from NARA's National Archives Catalog  

7.55 The Committee on Interstate Commerce was established on December 12, 1887, at the beginning of the 50th Congress, succeeding a select committee that had been appointed in 1885. The Select Committee To Investigate Interstate Commerce, also known as the Cullom Committee after its chairman Shelby Cullom of Illinois, was established on March 17, 1885, following the amendment and approval of Senator Cullom's resolution. Under the resolution as amended, the select committee was authorized to investigate and hold hearings on transportation by railroad and water routes between the several States. During the 49th Congress, the select committee reported at least two bills, S. 1093 and S. 1532, the latter enacted as the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. There are no unpublished records of this select committee. Senator Cullom was also the first chairman of the standing committee.

7.56 The records of the standing committee (627 ft.) include committee papers, 1889-46 (25 ft.); petitions, memorials, and resolutions of State legislatures that were referred to the committee, 1893-1946 (41 ft.); minutes, January 1916-August 1917 and March 1921-June 1922 (2 vols., 3 in.); legislative dockets, 1891-97 (3 vols., 3 in.); legislative and executive dockets, 1929-35 (2 vols., 3 in.); and records of the Subcommittee to Investigate Interstate Railroads, 1935-42 (560 ft.).

7.57 From the outset, the primary interest of the committee has been regulation of the railroads. For more than a decade before the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act, bills proposing to regulate railroad rates, investigate complaints, and prevent such practices as pooling, rebates, and drawbacks had been introduced in the House or the Senate. Several petitions and memorials on the subject were also received. During the 1870's and 1880's, bills, petitions, and memorials relating to railroad regulation were referred to either the Committee on Commerce or the Committee on Railroads, but neither had much sympathy for regulation and attempts to enact a law were unsuccessful. Taking matters into their own hands, certain State legislatures passed so-called Granger laws, regulating railroads within their States. These laws were upheld in the Supreme Court decision Munn v. Illinois (1877), but they were undermined by another Supreme Court decision Wabash, St. Louis, & Pacific R.R. Co. v. Illinois (1886). The Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 gave the Federal Government a degree of control over railroads, and with the establishment of the Committee on Interstate Commerce, the Senate had a vehicle by which to consider amendments to the Interstate Commerce Act. As the concept of interstate commerce expanded, the committee later became involved in railway labor matters; regulation of trucking and other interstate carriers; child labor; radio and other types of communications; aviation; and various business practices and economic issues.

7.58 Little evidence of committee activity is found in the records covering the first 6 years of the committee's existence. Except for a draft of S. 3773, 51st Cong., to amend the 1887 act, there are no records of the committee until the 53d Congress (1893-95). Beginning in 1893, there are petitions and memorials for each Congress and committee papers for all but the 62d Congress (1911-13).

7.59 The committee papers include legislative case files for most of the Congresses through the 57th (1901-03); Presidential messages and executive communications, most of which were published as House or Senate documents; and some correspondence. Legislative case files, 1901-46, are in the series of papers supporting specific bills and resolutions, although there are a few papers relating to specific bills for the 57th (1901-03) and 60th (1907-09) Congresses.

7.60 Many of the executive communications are annual or special reports of regulatory and other agencies. Most annual reports of the Interstate Commerce Committee were referred to the committee, as were communications from the ICC Chairman (most Congresses) and printed ICC valuation dockets (66th-70th and 73d-74th Congresses). Other ICC-originated and transportation-related reports and papers include the transcript of proceedings of the Federal Rate Regulation Association Convention in Chicago, 1905 (59A-F15); "Report of tests of automatic straight air brake system," conducted by the ICC's Bureau of Safety, 1918 (65A-F8); a report in response to S. Res. 412, 66th Cong., on the increased cost of railroad fuel, 1920 (67A-F12); and "The Interterritorial Freight Rate Problem of the United States," a report by TVA economist J. Haden Alldredge (75A-F12). The Federal Trade Commission also sent numerous printed or typewritten reports and communications to the committee. A sample of the topics of these reports include pipeline transportation of petroleum, 1916 (64A-F12); petroleum industry in Wyoming, 1921 (66A-F11); milk and milk products during World War I, 1921 (67A-F12); the Western Pine Manufacturers Association (67A-F12); resale price maintenance, 1929 (70A-F11); the agricultural implement and machine industry, 1938 (75A-F12); and the motor vehicle industry, 1939 (76A-F11). The committee also received special reports from the Securities and Exchange Commission on its study of investment trusts and investment companies under section 30 of the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 (76A-F11, 77A-F15). Other agencies that sent reports to the committee include the National Mediation Board, the Civil Aeronautics Board, the Federal Communications Commission, and their predecessors.

7.61 The committee papers also include correspondence of certain committee chairmen. Some letters received by long-time chairman Shelby Cullom are in the records for the 54th Congress (54A-F14). The correspondence of Burton K. Wheeler of Montana (1935-40, 1943-46, 5 ft.) is especially rich for the 78th and 79th Congresses.

7.62 Other correspondence of Senator Wheeler can be found in the investigative subcommittee records of the committee. Senator Wheeler was concerned with certain monopolistic tendencies and concentration in the telegraph industry. He chaired a special subcommittee, authorized by S. Res. 95 and 268, 76th Cong., to study these trends. The records are arranged by subject (76A-F11, 3 ft.). Other investigations undertaken during Wheeler's chairmanship for which there are unpublished records include the massive investigation of interstate railroads, 1935-42, and the investigation of the American Federation of Musicians pursuant to S. Res. 81, 78th Congress (see papers accompanying specific bills and resolutions, 78th Congress).

7.63 In response to a 1940 commercial airline crash near Lovettsville, VA, which killed Senator Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota, the Senate approved S. Res. 307, 76th Cong., to authorize an investigation of this and other accidents. The investigation was conducted by Lt. Carl Harper, chief investigator for the Subcommittee on Air Safety, chaired by J. Bennett (Champ) Clark of Missouri. The records (78A-F15, 4 ft.) are arranged alphabetically by subject and consist of correspondence, accident reports, administrative papers, newspaper clippings, and reference matter.

7.64 Also, the committee papers include Senator Patrick A. McCarran's reference files and related correspondence on aviation, 1937-44 (75A-F12, 76A-F11, 77A-F15, 78A-F15, 1 ft.). McCarran was not a member of the committee, but he had a well-known interest in commercial and general aviation.

7.65 Petitions and memorials referred to the Committee on Interstate Commerce cover a wide range of subjects--general powers of the ICC, railroad and common carrier regulation, communications regulation, and public utility regulation--as well as several important subtopics. In addition, a number of significant economic issues and social reforms are mentioned in these documents. For most Congresses, the petitions and memorials have been to some degree arranged by subject, with the remainder arranged chronologically under the heading "various subjects."

Clifford Berryman Cartoon of a battered Hepburn bill, 1906
Editorial Drawing by Clifford K. Berryman on the Hepburn bill, May 15, 1906, U.S. Senate Collection, from NARA's National Archives Catalog.  

7.66 During its early years, the committee received numerous petitions and memorials favoring bills to enlarge the powers of the ICC, 1893-1909 (53A-J16, 55A-J16.2, 56A-J19, 56A-J19.1, 58A-J36, 60A-J62). Two bills increasing Federal Government regulation of the railroads--the Elkins Act of 1903 and the Hepburn Act of 1906--were enacted; petitions relating to the former and an earlier version of the latter are in the series for the 57th Congress (57A-J33, 57A-J34). Between 1905 and 1907, the committee was inundated with petitions from consumers of railroad services who favored increased regulation and from associations of railroad employees who were opposed (59A-J58, 4 ft.). During World War I, the emergency transportation demands of the war effort led the Federal Government to take over control of the railroads (65A-J27). In the immediate postwar period, some petitions referred to the committee advocated continuing Government control, while others favored a return to private ownership (66A-J33). The passage of the Transportation Act of 1920 (Esch-Cummins Act) returned the railroads to private control, but under tighter regulations. In the late 1920's, increased competition from bus and truck transportation for passengers and freight traffic led certain railroad companies to orchestrate petition campaigns in favor of bus and truck regulations (70A-J23, 72A-J39). During the Great Depression, the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks sent a number of petitions favoring the extension of the Emergency Railroad Transportation Act, but the union's motive was to protect their members' jobs, not to support increased Government regulation of the railroads for its own sake (74A-J14).

7.67 In examining the petitions and memorials referred to the committee, it is apparent that railroad unions were very active petitioners of the Senate. In addition to the subjects mentioned above, the unions were particularly strong advocates of measures affecting the safe operation of railroads and other practices affecting their working conditions. Between 1900 and 1915, they supported S. 3560, 57th Cong., the Foraker-Corliss Safety Appliance bill relating to the operation of locomotives; the Bates-Penrose Employers' Liability bill (58A-J35, 59A-J54); bills relating to the qualifications of locomotive engineers (59A-J57); bills regulating the number of continuous hours of employment for railroad employees (59A-J60); inspection of locomotive boilers (63A-J35); and safety measures generally (60A-J67). The economic hardships of the Great Depression led unions to promote two bills, H.R. 9891 and S. 4646, 72d Cong., that would establish pensions for railroad and transportation employees (72A-J38, 7 in.).

7.68 A number of railroad business practices are discussed in the petitions and memorials, including pooling (53A-J16, 55A-J16.4) and ticket scalping (53A-J16.2, 54A-J18.1, 55A-J16.1). Uniform freight rates were sought by various business groups (54A-J18.2), and there was some support among petitioners for the so-called Grosscup Plan to establish a department of transportation and a special court to adjudicate railroad rate disputes (59A-J52). Certain railroads organized their employees to petition in 1910 and 1911 for higher railroad rates; petitions from employees of the Chicago Great Western Railroad in Waterloo, IA, and of the Union Pacific Railroad in Colorado and Nebraska contain thousands of names of employees, listing job titles and places of residence for each signer (61A-J50, 10 in.). In the early 1920's, the committee received complaints about stock watering and high rates, and some petitioners proposed that States have authority over rates within their boundaries (67A-J32).

7.69 As new forms of communication were developed and their use expanded, an increasing number of petitions concerning the regulation of technological and business aspects of telegraph, telephone, radio, and motion picture industries were brought to the committee's attention. Public opinion regarding the telegraph and the telephone is documented in a few instances. For example, as early as the mid-1890's, a group called the National Citizens Industrial Alliance sent a memorial to the Senate demanding that Congress relieve the people "from unjust and extortional rates and charges of the Bell Telephone Company Monopoly" (53A-J16.2). Thirty years later, another group protested the innovation of dial telephones and the related costs to consumers (68A-J32). Senator Wheeler's investigation of consolidation of the telegraph industry in 1939-40 prompted communications unions to use petitions to express their fear that the investigation would result in a loss of jobs to their members (76A-J17).

7.70 Concern over the regulation of various aspects of the radio industry is documented in the petitions and memorials beginning in the early 1920's. One matter for concern was control of radio frequencies (67A-J34, 69A-J21). A 1928 letter from the secretary and general manager of station WCFL, the Voice of Labor Cooperative Farm-Labor Radio Listeners' Association, complained to the Senate about frequency allocation practices of the Federal Radio Commission, which restricted their station to daytime broadcasting (71A-J37). In the 1930's and 1940's, petitions asking Congress to pressure radio networks to sell time to religious and other nonprofit broadcasters were received by the committee (73A-J28, 79A-J11). But aside from the complaints, the petitions simply reflect general public interest in the regulation of radio. In 1934, the committee was swamped with petitions asking that the hearings and reports on the bill that created the Federal Communication Commission be made public and distributed free of charge (73A-J29, 74A-J18, 11 ft.).

7.71 Petitioners were also interested in the motion picture industry. The committee received petitions on both sides of Senator Smith W. Brookhart's bill to regulate the practice of "block booking" films (70A-J22), and several petitions supported his resolution, S. Res. 170, 72d Cong., to investigate motion picture industry practices and conditions (72A-J37). In the late 1920's and early 1930's, many reform-minded petitioners registered their displeasure with the moral content of motion pictures (71A-J36, 73A-J27, 74A-J17).

7.72 Other economic issues confronting the committee were regulations governing the conditions of interstate transportation of cattle in rail cars (56A-J19.2, 57A-J35, 59A-J59, 60A-J63), adoption of daylight savings time (65A-J26, 66A-J32, 67A-J31), truth-in-fabrics legislation (66A-J34, 67A-J37), and fair trade legislation (71A-J35, 72A-J36). In addition to public concern over the moral content of motion pictures, reformers also lobbied Congress to use interstate commerce legislation to restrict gambling (54A-J18), interstate transportation of cigarettes (55A-J16), child labor (63A-J38, 64A-J38), and the advertising of alcoholic beverages on the radio (74A-J15, 76A-J16).

Subcommittee to Investigate Interstate Railroads

7.73 On May 20, 1935, the Senate agreed to S.Res. 71, 74th Cong., authorizing an investigation of the "financing, reorganizations, mergers, acquisitions and dispositions, insolvency, credit and securities operations and activities, financial policies, intercorporate relationships in respect of interstate railroads, railroad holding companies, railroad affiliates, and subsidiaries..." As directed, the Senate Committee on Interstate Commerce created a Subcommittee To Investigate Interstate Railroads.

7.74 Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, who introduced S. Res. 71 and later chaired the subcommittee, characterized the purpose of the investigation as follows: In light of the "vast shrinkage of income suffered by all [rail]roads in the last seven years," the subcommittee sought to "recommend to the Congress wise and workable legislation if we find that legislation is needed to improve the prosperity of our railroads and their ability to function most effectively." By virtue of S. Res. 227, 74th Cong., S. Res. 273, 75th Cong., and S. Res. 240, 76th Cong., the subcommittee pursued its inquiry from the 74th to the 77th Congress.

7.75 The Subcommittee To Investigate Interstate Railroads carried out its mission by a variety of methods on several fronts. In its Washington, DC headquarters and its field branches in New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Norfolk, the subcommittee collected documents from the files of railroad, investment, and related business organizations. The subcommittee held hearings from December 7, 1936, to July 27, 1939, and published its findings and recommendations in a series of reports, finally completing its work in 1942.

7.76 The records, 1935-42 (560 ft.), of the subcommittee comprise nearly 90 percent of the total volume of records of the Committee on Interstate Commerce. They include correspondence and reports created by railroads and related businesses, memoranda, and other administrative communications relating to the ongoing work of the subcommittee; transcripts (printer's copies and published volumes) of the subcommittee's hearings; legal documents and court records; printed House and Senate bills; questionnaires sent to and completed by experts in the field; the working papers of some of the subcommittee's investigators; and a variety of oversize documents and subject indexes. While the records of most of the field branches were interfiled with the records of the Washington headquarters, the documents generated by the New York branch were maintained separately. The types of records relating to the New York office parallel the records of the subcommittee as described above, but include the working papers of the branch director, Telford Taylor, as well. The subcommittee made multiple copies of many of the documents it collected in order to facilitate its reference work, with the result that copies of a single letter obtained from the files of a particular railroad company may be in several series of records.

7.77 The arrangement of the subcommittee records varies from series to series. A preliminary inventory briefly identifies and describes each series of records, and an unpublished appendix to the inventory provides a list of folder headings showing the arrangement and subject matter for all but 4 of the 29 series of records created by the subcommittee.

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Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-42). By Robert W. Coren, Mary Rephlo, David Kepley, and Charles South. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.