The Senate passed its version of the works bill on April 5. It contained restrictions against military spending, required Senate approval of all appointments to jobs paying more than $5,000, and said hirees would be paid a “security wage” below the local prevailing wage rate. By April 8, the two houses had agreed on all the details and passed the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act authorizing $4.8 billion to be spent on work relief. The measure reached Roosevelt aboard a train as he returned from a Florida fishing vacation, and he signed it the same day. His choice to head the program remained unknown.
But the deck was stacked in Hopkins’s favor. He already had Roosevelt’s ear on the work plans he had been outlining in sessions at the White House. After one such session Hopkins made an entry in his diary: “We went over the organization of the work program—more charts in pencil—he loves charts—no two of them are ever the same, which is a bit baffling at times.”
The goals of the work program also favored him. The “light” public works he had overseen at the CWA and FERA spent a far higher percentage of their budgets on labor—75 percent versus 30 percent—than Ickes’s “heavy” ones, which spent more on materials. This meant the government would pay less to reduce unemployment under Hopkins’s way of doing things, and also reduce the costs of direct relief since workers would be taken from the relief rolls. Moreover, these workers would spend their money right away, pumping their paychecks right back into the economy.
Finally, Hopkins had already demonstrated he could put people to work quickly. In the end, this tipped the balance. Roosevelt wanted speed. “Harry gets things done. I am going to give this job to Harry,” he told Donald Richberg, who had replaced Frank Walker as chair of the Executive and National Emergency Councils when Walker resigned from the two coordinating agencies in 1934 to attend to his private affairs.
So as not to upset Ickes, and if only to keep him from threatening to resign, the president assembled a structure for running the new program that gave him an illusion of control. It was a three-headed beast, one head each for receiving and screening applications, funding projects, and monitoring the work once it was started. The Division of Applications and Information was the funnel into which state and local governments, federal agencies, and any other sponsors poured their work proposals. It was headed by Walker, who had returned from his personal sabbatical. The proposals that passed the initial screening went to the next body, the Advisory Committee on Allotments. Ickes chaired this sprawling group, which included the secretaries of agriculture and labor as well as the interior; agency directors with responsibilities for soil erosion, emergency conservation work, rural resettlement, and rural electrification; the chiefs of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Forest Service, Bureau of Public Roads, Urban Housing Division, and various other governmental units charged with the country’s natural resources and its infrastructure. The Advisory Committee also included representatives of the Business Advisory Council, farm groups and organized labor, the American Bankers Association, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The committee was commanded “to meet in round table conference at least once a week,” and as Robert Sherwood has pointed out (though putting it mildly), the meetings “must have required quite a large round table.” Its recommendations went to the president for final approval.
The third unit was the Works Progress Division. This was the unit responsible for tracking the work projects and keeping them moving on schedule, and it was in charge of this that Roosevelt placed Hopkins.
Having decided on this structure, Roosevelt called Hopkins, Ickes, and a few others to the White House on the evening of April 26 and told them that he was committed to the program. He said he expected “everything to go like clockwork” and would “accept no excuses.”
Two nights later, on Sunday, April 28, he sat before microphones in the White House and delivered the seventh fireside chat of his presidency. It was his first address to the nation since the State of the Union address on January 4, and he used it to introduce the works program and ask the people to help keep it honest and free of politics.
“I well realize that the country is expecting before this year is out to see the ‘dirt fly,’” the president said. “Our responsibility is to all of the people in this country. This is a great national crusade to destroy enforced idleness, which is an enemy of the human spirit generated by this depression. Our attack upon these enemies must be without stint and without discrimination. No sectional, no political distinctions can be permitted.”
Anticipating attacks before they occurred, he forewarned his listeners, “There are chiselers in every walk of life. Every profession has its black sheep…. The most effective means of preventing such evils in this work relief program will be the eternal vigilance of the American people themselves. I call upon my fellow citizens everywhere to cooperate with me in making this the most efficient and the cleanest example of public enterprise the world has ever seen.
“It is time to provide a smashing answer for those cynical men who say that a democracy cannot be honest and efficient. If you will help, this can be done. I therefore hope you will watch the work in every corner of this nation. Feel free to criticize. Tell me of instances where work can be done better, or where improper practices prevail. Neither you nor I want criticism conceived in a purely fault-finding or partisan spirit, but I am jealous of the right of every citizen to call to the attention of his or her government examples of how the public money can be more effectively spent for the benefit of the American people.”
Roosevelt called the effort that was about to start “the most comprehensive work plan in the history of the nation,” and gave an additional hint of its scope when he referred to the “two hundred and fifty or three hundred kinds of work that will be undertaken.”
Applications for funding began pouring in.
At the same time, the machinery of the works program evolved. The Works Progress Division did not remain one of an equal trinity for long. When Roosevelt sat down at his desk on May 6 to sign the executive order creating the new organization, the Works Progress Division had become the Works Progress Administration. The order said it “shall be responsible to the president for the honest, efficient, speedy and coordinated execution of the work-relief program as a whole, and for the execution of that program in such manner as to move from the relief rolls to work on such projects or in private employment the maximum number of persons in the shortest time possible.”
The tone of the president’s order and the extent to which Hopkins commanded the new program was captured the next day in the New York Times. “Only a brief paragraph in the order is devoted to Mr. Walker’s and Mr. Ickes’s divisions, but two full pages refer to Mr. Hopkins’s Works Progress Administration,” the newspaper reported.
The name, inevitably shortened to the initials WPA, caused some contention. Ickes, used to seeing the initials of his Public Works Administration used as a shorthand for work relief, thought Hopkins had chosen it deliberately to create confusion. But Hopkins apparently didn’t like the name, either, and the choice is usually attributed to Roosevelt. No matter its origin, it captured two things the president wanted to convey—works were under way, and that meant progress.
The first meeting of the Committee on Allotments, held on May 7, found Ickes presiding in the White House Cabinet Room, self-consciously occupying the president’s chair. Roosevelt sat to one side. La Guardia had come from New York to represent the Conference of Mayors, as well as New York’s large sheaf of applications. (Roosevelt recognized him, saying, “Of course, the mayor will try to get as much as he can in the way of a grant and possibly as little as he can in the way of a loan.”) Projects totaling $100 million were on the table, having passed through the Division of Applications and Information. Roosevelt reminded the members that the jobs approved should stress employment, and Hopkins presented maps and charts he said showed how to spread the work around.
But while Ickes may have presided, Hopkins dominated that first meeting, and he would swing the allotment process to his advantage from then on. The executive order gave him the power to maneuver projects from the PWA if he could demonstrate that they would lighten the relief rolls, and he used it with impunity. He had agreed that the WPA should handle all projects costing less than $25,000, which seemed to give Ickes the pick of larger jobs, but in fact Hopkins also kept the option of taking on substantial projects if he chose. “For instance,” he said at a press conference in July when the agency was two months old, “the City of New York may want to build a new park…'which may cost three and one-half million dollars. That is a proper project to bring to us in the first instance, which we would approve. They may want to build in New York fifty swimming pools. That would be a proper project to bring to us irrespective of the cost. The same thing is true of playgrounds, also extensions, sewer systems, water systems or extensions to buildings. Many of those projects will be in excess of twenty-five thousand dollars. We might have one which would read, ‘repairing and repaving of twenty-seven miles of city streets in Los Angeles. The cost is four million, six hundred thousand dollars, of which the City of Los Angeles is prepared to put up eight hundred thousand.’ That would go directly to us in the first instance.”
Hopkins held the trump card whenever a project would reduce the numbers on relief. But his final and ultimately greatest advantage over Ickes lay in the fact that PWA projects required a 55 percent contribution of the cost from their state or local sponsors. WPA project sponsors were expected only “to contribute equipment, materials and services to the maximum amount possible.” Given the option of paying more than half a project’s cost or as little as nothing, city and state governments turned overwhelmingly to the WPA, while Ickes’s project reviewers looked at their empty in-boxes and fumed.
Ickes asked the president to draw a sharper line between the two agencies. “The demarcation…'should be clearly defined at once by you as the only one who can speak with authority,” he wrote in a memo that lobbied for a larger role for the PWA. “We have the personnel, we have the experience, and we have built up a reputation for integrity and efficiency that will stand the administration in good stead in the stormy political days that lie just ahead,” he wrote. “I do not even intimate that Harry Hopkins cannot do the work as efficiently as PWA, but he cannot do it short of building up what would amount to a duplicate organization.”
By then, however, the allotments committee had already relegated the PWA to a narrow range of activities. The first billion-dollar allocation announced by the committee, subject to the president’s approval, gave the PWA $250 million for clearing slums and building low-cost housing. The Rivers and Harbors section of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers got $147 million for a variety of projects on navigable waterways. The remainder was designated for projects that would use WPA labor: to the Bureau of Roads in the Department of Agriculture for building roads and eliminating grade crossings, and to states and cities for more street and road work, public buildings, water and sewer lines, and a variety of other projects. These were the jobs the WPA was created to fill, and soon the sight of men wielding shovels and pushing wheelbarrows would be ubiquitous throughout America.