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Critics attacked the proposed law as dangerously radical. (One Republican sniped that the bill was difficult to understand because it had been translated from the original Russian.) But Congress quickly embraced it. By the summer, Wallace's Agriculture Department would be sending out checks to hundreds of thousands of wheat, cotton and corn farmers.
Roosevelt had not planned to keep Congress in special session for 100 days. But as long as it kept enacting his agenda, he seized the opportunity. Frances Perkins, his Secretary of Labor and the first female Cabinet member, pushed for large-scale welfare and public-works programs. Families that fell behind on rent were being thrown out on the street, children were keeling over in school from malnutrition, and once upstanding members of the middle class were foraging for food in garbage dumps. Roosevelt backed a welfare program drawn up by Harry Hopkins, a social worker who became the first federal welfare administrator. Under Hopkins' energetic leadership, in his first day on the job, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) began sending out multimillion-dollar checks to the states.
The initial public-works program was one Roosevelt thought up himself: the Civilian Conservation Corps, which hired more than 250,000 young people to plant trees and fix up national parks. Later in the Hundred Days, F.D.R. signed on to a much larger plan. It allocated $3.3 billion to put unemployed people to work in an array of government jobs across the country. This plan later grew into the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal's signature jobs program.
Roosevelt also imposed the first federal regulations on the stock market. Many Americans believed Wall Street chicanery had caused the Depression. The Truth-in-Securities Act required issuers of new securities to disclose important information. A second banking law, the Glass-Steagall Act, separated investment banking and savings banking. But the last major bill of the Hundred Days, the National Industrial Recovery Act, was a doomed attempt to revive the economy through government-business partnerships. The Supreme Court would soon strike it down, though key parts lived on, including a federal guarantee of workers' right to unionize.
In little more than three months, Roosevelt had done nothing less than create a new America or, rather, two new Americas. The Hundred Days was the start of the American welfare state. For the first time, the Federal Government assumed responsibility for caring for its worst-off citizens. FERA paved the way for Social Security and unemployment insurance to become law in 1935 and, much later, for programs like Medicare and Medicaid. The Hundred Days also laid the groundwork for the modern regulatory state. A year after the Truth-in-Securities Act was passed, F.D.R. created the Securities and Exchange Commission. Before the New Deal ended, there would be a federal minimum wage and a National Labor Relations Board to protect the rights of workers.
Not all the Hundred Days legislation has survived. The federal welfare program was dismantled in the 1990s, during the Gingrich revolution, and turned into block grants to the states. In 1999, President Bill Clinton signed a repeal of Glass-Steagall's separation of investment and savings banking, possibly paving the way for the current financial meltdown. Other laws from the era have lasted too long, notably the AAA's generous crop subsidies, which were meant to be temporary.
Many aspects of the New Deal remain controversial. Some people argue that the Federal Government should do more for the unemployed, while others believe that government handouts have gone too far. Some want stricter regulations on Wall Street and Big Business, and others want less red tape.
But F.D.R.'s basic idea of an activist government has become a national consensus. That became clear last year when the financial system began teetering. There were few Herbert Hoovers calling for the government to stand idly by. George W. Bush and Barack Obama insisted, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, that the Federal Government had to spend billions to bail out the banks. Their parallel response was proof that 75 years later, the ideals of the Hundred Days have triumphed. In a very real way, we're all New Dealers now.
Cohen is the author of Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America
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