Sometimes it truly amazes me to go back in time and read about struggles over the same issues we find dominating airwaves and internet space today. In truth however, most political issues are never ending battles that span across many decades. Today we see uprising with the “Tea Party” and “Occupy” movements lashing out against corporate favoritism, leading to the entire country attacking lobbying, as we collectively realize just how much it has shaped the legislature of our land. In 1919, the true birth of lobbying as we know it today culminated in one of the biggest changes in legislature our country has ever seen-and also one of it’s biggest failures. I write about today in history to remind us all of what happens when we let special interests write our laws.
“The Volstead Act” (aka “The Prohibition Act”) was an act written by Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon league, one of the most powerful lobbyists and men in politics at the time. He’d been an employee of the Anti-Saloon league since graduating college, and had quickly risen through the ranks. Wheeler all but invented pressure politics, otherwise known as “Wheelerisms” in today’s political world. Under the leadership of Wheeler, the ASL focused solely on promoting prohibition, working feverishly to advance that agenda at all costs, while ignoring all other issues including party.
The act would be passed, and then vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson, however on this day in history-October 28, 1919-Congress overrode that veto, passing the Volstead Act into law as a reaction to the political pressure organizations such as the ASL, and smaller organizations like the Prohibition Party piled on them. With a man who wielded the clout of Wheeler-a man who according to his former publicity secretary “controlled six Congresses, dictated to two Presidents of the United States” and “directed legislation in most of the states of the union” it was almost impossible to imagine the bill not passing.
The ASL pushed their agenda on every front they could, ranging from legislature and lobbying in congressional hearings to emotional appeals to anti-German feeling that still hung in the air throughout the country following the first World War. They attacked at every level of legislation, from local to state to federal until finally a Constitutional Amendment was passed; the 18th Amendment barring the “manufacture, sale, and transport of intoxicating beverages”. This left a few questions to be asked, not the least of which was: just what is an “intoxicating beverage”? The Volstead Act was drafted to answer all the questions of just how the 18th amendment would be interpreted and enforced. As the main lobbyists, supporters, and proponents of the amendment, Wheeler and his ASL co-workers were the right people to write the act.
The Volstead Act answered three main questions regarding the 18th Amendment;
1) What is an “intoxicating beverage”?
1) What is an “intoxicating beverage”?
2) What will the penalties be for breaking the law?
3) Are there any exceptions to the amendment?
The first version of the bill identified anything over .5% alcohol percentage to be an intoxicating beverage, however it did allow citizens to make juice that was not intoxicating for themselves. Very quickly, the .5 limit would be struck down however, (by the Bureau of Internal Revenue) leading to the effective legalization of homemade wine.
The act failed miserably when it came to punishment and enforcement of the 18th amendment. While it did call for trials for all offenders, many-if not most-of those trials were unsuccessful. In one sampling, of over 4,000 arrests there were merely 6 convictions. One of the major problems was that the act failed to allocate enough resources, committing too few agents to enforce and oversee such large areas as to virtually guarantee their failure. You see, proponents of the act and amendment never foresaw the negative affects, with some believing so staunchly that alcohol was essentially the root of all evil, that many towns even sold their jails on the eve of Prohibition, thinking they’d never need to use them again.
Lastly, the act outlined many exemptions, including the ability of doctors to actually prescribe alcohol to cure certain ailments. What resulted was really a maze of exemptions, allowing almost anyone who wanted to bypass the new law to do so. Between the unclear language outlining the implementation of the act, the poor planning regarding public backlash, and the ability of most to bypass the law if they wanted to, the act was more or less doomed to fail from the get-go.
The Volstead Act ultimately failed completely, when on December 5, 1933 Utah became the 31st state to ratify the 21st amendment, striking down the 18th and ruling the Volstead Act to be unconstitutional. With Wheeler dead in 1927 within a year of his retirement and the namesake of the act; Andrew J. Volstead out of the House of Representatives in 1923 there were few willing to combat the rise of public pressure to repeal the 18th amendment, as the government finally decided to return the power of regulating alcohol to the states once and for all.