Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776
The size of the federal government and its role in capital markets have been debated since our independence from Britain was declared. At times, these debates have influenced election campaigns and votes in Congress on policy. The reality on the ground, however, is that the federal government has almost always had a hand in guiding the economy. Its roles and responsibilities have grown in response to opportunities to expand US markets and to address practices that were harmful to markets and the communities they served.
Concerns about the size of government and its intrusion on commerce date back to the founding of the country. They were most clearly articulated by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776 just four months before the Declaration of Independence. Given the influence and, sometimes, dominance of Smith’s ideas, some might argue that his book was the more important of these documents.
It is worth noting that Smith’s ideas were more nuanced than the references we hear in sound bytes today. According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF), Smith believed that the wealth of a nation included not just the outputs of farm and factory but the labor that produced them. Likewise, he recognized that all people in the society needed to benefit from the free market system because no society can flourish when most of its people are “poor and miserable.” He also wrote that taxpayers should pay taxes “in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.”
CRF notes that Smith wrote his book long before the full impact of the Industrial Revolution could be realized. As a result, he did not foresee the development of large corporate monopolies and the abuses they would wreak on labor and the shared resources of society.
These abuses and the tendency of corporate industry to eliminate competition led to a steady increase in the federal government’s role in the economy. Randall G. Holcombe, Professor of Economics at Florida State University, has observed, “By 1913 the federal government had been transformed into an organization not to protect rights, but, ostensibly, to further the nation’s economic well-being.”
That transformation began almost a hundred years earlier when the government established the Agriculture Division of the US Patent Office, but it accelerated in the late 1800s with the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission. At that time, Congress started to confront many of the societal harms caused by industrialization. The history of the growth of the federal government since that time is, in one sense, the story of how anti-competitive and abusive business practices damaged the free market and diminished large segments of society, and the solutions Congress implemented to provide an adequate – though often imperfect – response.
With enough of the population motivated to protest and engage the political system, time and again Congress has needed to use its powers to step in to protect the large segments of the population that were unprotected from unchecked corporate power.
The timeline includes only a sampling of the federal legislation and agencies established to address the problems of a growing nation in a rapidly transforming world.
Origins of USDA1839
Mission: To address widespread agricultural problems brought about by standard farming practices
Reason for creation: Through much of its early history, the health of the American economy was directly tied to the productivity, development, and profitability of the country’s agriculture. In 1820, for example, 72% of American workers labored on farms and over 75% of American exports were agricultural products. By the 1830s, large swaths of American farmland had been left unsuitable for growing crops and both farmers and government officials recognized the need to investigate and resolve the problem. The Agricultural Division was established largely to undertake this task. It began researching and producing seeds that were more resilient and easier to grow in harsh conditions. By the 1860s, the division was producing over 2.4 million seed packages
Changes since establishment: In 1862, the government established the United States Department of Agriculture as an independent entity but not yet a cabinet level agency. Farmers’ interest groups lobbied for decades for Cabinet representation. Finally in 1889, after a failed attempt to create a Department of Agriculture and Labor to satisfy both organized labor and farmers, the Department of Agriculture was granted Cabinet status.
Since its inception,the USDA has adapted to and helped shape changes in the economy, agricultural practices, and human welfare. Its constituency was decentralized and scattered on farms across the country; reaching them with new information was a significant challenge.The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 provided the resources for the USDA to expand its program to educate people on agriculture-related topics.
During periods of difficulty for farmers, from the Great Depression to the 2019 trade war with China, the USDA has provided essential resources to struggling farmers allowing them to stay solvent.
Learn moreThe US Department of Agriculture started as the Agriculture Division of the US Patent Office in 1839. It was established to address the diminishing productivity of America's farmland. The division researched and eventually produced seeds that were more resilient and easier to grow in harsh conditions.
Interstate Commerce Commission1887
Established: February 4, 1887
Mission: To enforce the Interstate Commerce Act, a law that prohibited unfair and monopolistic practices of the railroad (and later, trucking) companies.
Reason for creation: As they spread westward in the mid-1800s, railroads often acquired monopolies that led to abusive market practices, including discrimination, collusion, and rate shifting that negatively affected farmers in the west and businessmen in the east. State laws passed in the 1870s to address “the railroad problem” proved ineffective against a business that crossed state boundaries, leading these two groups to lobby the federal government for help. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) became the first regulatory agency in the US and was a model for those that came later.
Changes since establishment: Soon after the creation of the ICC, major railroads challenged its ratemaking authority in court. In many of these cases, such as the 1897 Supreme Court Case Interstate Commerce Commission v. Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway Co. significantly limited the ICC’s ability to meaningfully regulate the railroad companies. In response to these court decisions, Congress began passing laws that clarified and refined the role of the ICC so that it could better achieve its intended goals:
- Railroad Safety Appliance Act of 1893, which set consistent national safety standards and vested enforcement power with the ICC.
- Hepburn Act of 1906, enacted in response to repeated rate hikes by the railroads and the activity of other modes of transportation commerce, set maximum railroad rates and extended the ICC’s jurisdiction to include bridges, terminals, ferries, railroad sleeping cars, express companies and oil pipelines.
- Mann–Elkins Act of 1910 further expanded the ICC’s power over railroad rates and placed telecommunication companies under its regulatory control (until the Communications Act of 1934 would transfer this power to the newly created Federal Communications Commission).
- Valuation Act of 1913 required the ICC to consider the value of railroad property when setting rates.
- Motor Carrier Act of 1935 extended the ICC’s jurisdiction to include interstate busses and trucking.
During the 1970s and 1980s, several deregulatory laws were passed by Congress that began to roll back the power of the ICC. These included the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976, the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, and the Staggers Rail Act of 1980. Together, they greatly reduced the ICC’s power to regulate the railroad and trucking industries.
Finally, Congress passed the ICC Termination Act of 1995 which abolished the ICC. By this time, most of its duties had either been eliminated or delegated to other agencies (primarily the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics). The ICC’s institutional successor is the Surface Transportation Board whose primary responsibilities are the resolution of railroad service and rate disputes and reviewing railroad merger proposals.
Learn moreAs they spread westward in the mid-1800s, railroads often acquired monopolies that led to abusive market practices, including discrimination, collusion, and rate shifting that negatively affected farmers in the west and businessmen in the east. These two groups eventually lobbied the federal government for help. The Interstate Commerce Commission became the first regulatory agency in the US and was a model for those that came later.
Sherman Antitrust Act1890
Established: July 2, 1890
Mission: To prohibit anti-competitive or monopolistic conduct by individuals or corporations.
Reason for creation: The Sherman Antitrust Act, sponsored by Senator John Sherman, R-OH, was enacted as an attempt to limit the damaging effects of monopolistic corporations. During the second half of the 19th century, large corporations such as Standard Oil were consolidating power and gaining monopolistic control over their respective markets through both horizontal and vertical integration. Intervention by the government to prevent this consolidation was called for both by consumers, who were being forced to pay artificially high prices for basic necessities, as well as by other businesses that were being shut out of competing in the same markets. While several states had previously instituted laws with similar purposes to the Sherman Antitrust Act, they were limited by their inability to regulate corporate conduct across state borders. Thus, a federal act was better equipped to address those issues.
Changes since establishment: The Sherman Antitrust Act was the first in a series of efforts by the Federal government to rein in monopolistic conduct and restore competitiveness to markets. Those efforts eventually led to the creation of the Federal Trade Commission in 1914.
Income Tax (16th Amendment)1913
Established: February 3, 1913
Mission: To establish a steady source of revenue to cover the expanding role of the federal government.
Reason for creation: By the late 19th century, the expanding role of the federal government necessitated a new and stable source of revenue. Congress had previously used an explicitly temporary income tax (Revenue Act of 1861) to pay for the Civil War, but the court’s decision in Pollock v. Farmer’s Loan & Trust Co which struck down an income tax included in the 1894 Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act convinced congress that the court was unwilling to allow any income tax to become law. The Court’s decision led to the passage of legislation in 1909 by a two-thirds majority, as is required to amend the Constitution. The 16th Amendment then became a part of the Constitution in 1913 after 75% – or 36 of the 48 – states in the Union at that time ratified it. Wyoming was the 36th state to ratify.
Changes since establishment: The new job of collecting income tax necessitated the creation of another federal organization, the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Established in 1913, it created and distributed the first form 1040 in January 1914. In 1952, President Truman proposed a reorganization of the bureau, recommending that its agents be hired through the civil service instead of through political patronage. The move was designed to eliminate political corruption of the tax system. Just-elected President Eisenhower supported the plan and changed the name to the Internal Revenue Service in 1953.
Since the ratification of the 16th Amendment, the definition of “taxable income” has expanded. The income tax rate has also varied widely, especially for the highest income bracket. During both World Wars, the top marginal income tax rate rose significantly (77% during WWI and 94% during xWWII). After WWII, the top marginal tax rates remained above 70% until the 1980s when it fell to a low of 28% in 1988. It has remained below 40% ever since. Reductions in the income tax since 1980 have produced steady, and sometimes rapid, increases in the national debt [LINK to debt brief] and contributed to the widening wealth gap [LINK to inequality brief].
OurDocuments.gov: 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Federal Income Tax (1913)
US Constitution.net: Ratification of Constitutional Amendments
Constitution Center: Amendment XVI
Legal Information Institute: Income Tax
IRS History Timeline
The Week: IRS’s long history of scandal
Investopedia: Income Tax Explanation
Investopedia: Revenue Act of 1862
Department of Labor1913
Established: March 4, 1913
Mission: To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.
Reason for creation: The Department of Labor was created in response to the massive amount of economic and political power that large corporations had accumulated by the turn of the 20th century. This period of unchecked corporate wealth and power is known as the Gilded Age.
Feeling that this power inherently threatened the rights and representation of workers, the American labor movement repeatedly called for the voice of organized labor to be represented in the President’s executive Cabinet. While Congress established the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1884 and a Department of Labor in 1888, neither of these agencies were granted executive rank. Then, in 1903, the Department of Commerce and Labor was formed by President Theodore Roosevelt to rein in the excesses of large corporations but still there was no executive agency specifically dedicated to American laborers. Finally, in 1913, the Department of Commerce and Labor was renamed the Department of Commerce and its labor-related agencies were transferred to a new executive department: the Department of Labor (DOL).
Changes since establishment: Since its creation, the DOL has experienced a number of adaptations and additions. Among the more significant:
The Department of Labor was created in response to the massive amount of economic and political power that large corporations had accumulated by the turn of the 20th century. This period of unchecked corporate wealth and power is known as the Gilded Age. Feeling that this power inherently threatened the rights and representation of workers, the American labor movement had repeatedly called for the voice of organized labor to be represented in the President’s executive Cabinet.
- Federal Employees’ Compensation Act of 1916 (aka The Workingmen’s Compensation Act), established workers’ compensation benefits for federal employees and would eventually lead to the establishment of the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) within the DOL. The OWCP’s mission is to “protect the interests of workers who are injured or become ill on the job, their families, and their employers by making timely, appropriate, and accurate decisions on claims, providing prompt payment of benefits and helping injured workers return to gainful work as early as is feasible”.
- Frances Perkins, who served as Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Roosevelt as the first ever woman to hold a cabinet position, had a particularly impactful effect on the DOL’s role in the economy. Perkins used her position in the department to support and institute major reforms like the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Her elevated profile in national politics increased the influence of the department as a whole.
- The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, enacted under President Nixon, established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Created in response to long standing concerns about workplace labor conditions, OSHA’s mission is “to assure safe and healthy conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance”.
The Federal Reserve1913
Established: December 23, 1913
Mission: To centralize control of the United States monetary system in order to promote economic safety and stability.
Reason for creation: Repeated and dramatic economic panics in the preceding decades led to the creation of The Federal Reserve, designed to be a central authority equipped to manage and stabilize the national economy.
From 1863 until the Fed’s creation, a loose system of national banks managed the United States’ monetary policy. However, under this arrangement in 1873, 1884, 1893, and 1907, the United States experienced economic panics—often characterized by disruptions in economic stability on both national and international scales. During the Panic of 1907, J.P. Morgan, the powerful financier and banker, facilitated a response by rallying bankers and other wealthy Americans to loan money to specific failing banks in order to keep them solvent. While his actions probably helped prevent the total collapse of the stock market, they also caused many in power to recognize the need for an independent and reliable organization to support greater economic stability. Consequently, the National Monetary Commission was established to investigate the causes of the panic and to suggest legislation that would help avoid further catastrophes. Following the commission’s 1911 report, legislators debated for two years until finally passing the Federal Reserve Act which established the Federal Reserve (the Fed).
Changes since establishment: Since it was established, the Fed has guided American monetary policy through extensive economic changes and massive disturbances. Events like the two World Wars, the Great Depression, the September 11th attacks, and the 2008 Great Recession all required stabilization efforts by the central bank. In the 1920s, the Fed recognized the gold standard’s waning importance in American economic affairs and initiated a shift towards using open market operations as a primary tool for monetary policy. Following World War II, the Employment Act of 1946 made the prioritization of maximum employment one of the Federal Reserve’s responsibilities. There have also been several notable changes to the structure and power of the Fed:
- The Monetary Accord of 1951 was an important agreement between the United States Treasury and the Fed that re-established the independent authority of the Fed to set interest rates. The agreement became necessary after the Treasury had repeatedly pressured the Fed—mostly successfully—to keep interest rates low to finance war efforts during World War II and the Korean War.
- The Bank Holding Company Act of 1956 expanded the Fed’s ability to regulate bank holding companies—companies that control one or more banks without directly participating in banking activities. It necessitated that the Federal Reserve Board of Governors approve the formation of any bank holding company. The act also included other expansions of regulatory power by the Fed over bank holding companies but they were mostly repealed by the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1994 and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999.
- The Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980 expanded the jurisdiction of the Fed’s rules to include all American banks. This greatly increased the Fed’s power over monetary policy and, through new depository requirements, improved its ability to fight inflation.
Learn moreRepeated and dramatic economic panics in the preceding decades led to the creation of The Federal Reserve, designed to be a central authority equipped to manage and stabilize the national economy. In particular, the Panic of 1907 caused many to recognize the need for an independent and reliable organization to support greater economic stability.
Federal Trade Commission1914
Established: September 26, 1914
Mission: To protect consumers and the marketplace from anti-competitive business practices
Reason for creation: Creation of the FTC culminated a steady demand by the public and business for protection from the anti-competitive practices of a few large companies in several prominent industries. Despite passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890, anti-competitive activities persisted, including monopolistic mergers, price-fixing, bid rigging, and false and deceptive advertising. The FTC replaced the Bureau of Corporations, which was established in 1903 and served to institutionalize the nation’s antitrust activities for the first time. Initially, the FTC’s core responsibility was enforcing the aforementioned antitrust laws that were already in effect. This work primarily involved breaking up monopolies, preventing their formation, and suing monopolistic violators.
Changes since establishment: In the century since the FTC was established, the economy has become much more complex and more forms of commerce and anti-competitive practices have emerged. In response, the FTC has taken on additional roles to address these issues, notably investigative enforcement. Usually in response to an accusation of wrongdoing by a third party, the FTC can now investigate complaints and then recommend further action. The FTC also now plays a role in enforcing laws that protect the public from false advertising. And, with the advent of internet commerce, the FTC has taken on some responsibility for enforcing e-commerce regulations relating to things like privacy and use of customer data, multi-level marketing, and payment protection.
While its jurisdiction has expanded beyond antitrust actions, its original responsibilities remain a core part of the FTC’s mission in today’s economy where large corporations regularly seek to consolidate economic power through mergers that increase market share and eliminate competition.
Learn moreDespite passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890, anti-competitive activities persisted, including monopolistic mergers, price-fixing, bid rigging, and false and deceptive advertising. Creation of the FTC culminated a steady demand by the public and business for protection from the anti-competitive practices of a few large companies in several prominent industries.
Food and Drug Administration1930
Established: June 30, 1930
Mission: To protect consumers from unsafe drugs, biological products, medical devices, food products, and cosmetics as well as to advance public health through the promotion of beneficial medical innovations and by helping the public access accurate, scientific information about how to maintain and improve health.
Reason for creation: The creation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) arose from decades of legislative attempts to prevent the sale and distribution of consumable products deemed so harmful as to be a public health hazard. These included foods processed in unsanitary conditions and substances sold as medicines or drugs that were either ineffective or actively dangerous.
By the late 18th century, the federal government was already setting purity standards on certain foods and, in 1848, the Drug Importation Act represented the beginning of federal regulations on drug imports. These roles were designated to the Chemical Division of the United States Department of Agriculture in 1862. However, in the early 20th century, the dire need for more intensive regulation of food and drug products was quickly becoming evident. In 1906, in part due to the growing prevalence of dangerous substances like opium, cocaine, and heroin in widely sold medicinal elixirs as well as the growing outrage about the shockingly unsanitary food production environments throughout the country, Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt passed both the Food and Drug Act as well as the Meat Inspection Act. Many point to the Food and Drug Act, which regulated interstate trade of misbranded or altered foods, drinks, and drugs, as the original iteration of the Food and Drug Administration. However it was not until 1927 that the Food, Drug, and Insecticide Administration was created and, three years later, renamed the Food and Drug Administration.
Changes since establishment: The role of the FDA has grown to include regulating cosmetics and medical devices, the authority to conduct factory inspections, testing drugs on animals and humans, and speeding or skipping the authorization process of experimental drugs for those in need.
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 brought cosmetics and medical devices into the FDA’s jurisdiction. It required that all new drugs and cosmetics be proven safe before they could reach consumers and mandated that drugs be labeled with instructions on how consumers could safely use them. It also set new enforceable food standards and authorized the FDA to perform factory inspections.
Learn moreCongress created the Food and Drug Administration to prevent the sale and distribution of consumable products deemed so harmful as to be a public health hazard. These included foods processed in unsanitary conditions and substances sold as medicines or drugs that were either ineffective or actively dangerous.
Securities and Exchange Commission1934
Established: June 6, 1934
Mission: To protect investors; maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets; and facilitate capital formation.
Reason for creation: Decades of economic instability and mistrust in financial institutions came to a head during the Great Depression and resulted in the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission. As capital markets expanded after World War I, many investors were swindled or misled by fraudulent sales or other schemes. Of the $50 billion in new securities offered during the 1920s, it is estimated that half of them quickly became worthless. Despite these issues, proposals for federal regulation of the exchanges were not taken seriously until after the 1929 stock market crash and investment capital dried up. Following the massive losses in value, public faith in the market was deeply shaken and a consensus grew that something had to be done in order to regain the public’s trust. During its investigation into the roots causes of the financial collapse, Congress determined that major banks and other financial institutions had misled investors about the value of securities, engaged in irresponsible and risky investment activities, and favored certain financial insiders over average stock traders.
Based on the findings of the Pecora hearings, Congress passed the Securities Act of 1933 which prohibited deceit, misrepresentations, and other fraud in the sale of securities and also required that investors receive extensive information regarding the securities available for purchase. The act aimed to achieve these goals primarily through requiring the registration of securities with the federal government. The following year, Congress passed the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 which established the SEC and gave it broad authority to enforce the Securities Act of 1933 as well as to regulate all aspects of the securities industry.
Changes since establishment: The securities industry has changed significantly since the formation of the SEC and thus additional legislation has been needed to keep pace with those changes. The Trust Indenture Act of 1939, the Investment Company Act of 1940, and the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 regulated participants and products, such as investment advisors and mutual funds, that were not yet specifically regulated by the 1933 and 1934 acts. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 was passed to, among other things, “protect investors by improving the accuracy and reliability of corporate disclosures.”
Federal Communications Commission1934
Established: June 19, 1934
Mission: To regulate interstate and international communications over radio, television, wire, satellite and cable.
Reason for creation: Congress established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) after decades of government efforts to manage the complexities of new communications technologies.
The regulation of radio communication dates back to the Wireless Ship Act of 1910 which required cruise ships to have a radio and radio operator on board capable of communicating with other communications systems. However, when radio noise prevented the sinking Titanic’s emergency alerts from being relayed quickly enough to authorities, Congress decided that more comprehensive regulation was needed. The subsequent Radio Act of 1912 gave the federal government control over the broadcast spectrum, required all radio operators to be licensed, and gave priority to distress calls. However, over the next two decades the radio environment continued to evolve.
By the 1920s, commercial radio operators were becoming more prevalent and the broadcast spectrum was beginning to fill up. And, while the Radio Act of 1912 had required all broadcasters to obtain licenses, the courts had consistently ruled that the government could not stop issuing licenses even if the broadcast spectrum was full. This led to passage ofthe Radio Act of 1927 establishing the Federal Radio Commission (FRC). The FRC was granted the authority both to assign broadcasters to specific radio frequencies and to deny licenses to broadcasters when the spectrum was full.
The FCC replaced the FRC when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1934, expanding the government’s jurisdiction to include long-distance telephony as more and more Americans adopted the technology.
Changes since establishment: Since its formation, the jurisdiction of the FCC has grown to include television, satellite communications, and, to some degree, the internet. The FCC now also regulates the “decency” of broadcasts and has the power to fine networks that broadcast material considered by the commission to be “indecent”.
Over the eight decades of its existence, the FCC has had to adapt to numerous changes in the media market. In an attempt at ensuring a diverse representation of information and opinions on television and the radio, the FCC instituted the Fairness Doctrine in 1949. The Fairness Doctrine required that broadcasters devote airtime to important issues affecting the public and that, in their explanations of those issues, they include differing points of view on the topics. It was eliminated in 1987, however, as the options for obtaining different viewpoints via cable tv and the emerging Internet grew.
The most significant change in telecommunications policy enacted since the creation of the FCC was the Telecommunications Act of 1996. With the stated goal of opening up of media markets, the act rolled back many of the regulations established by the Telecommunications Act of 1934 and allowed media companies to grow larger and control greater portions of media markets. The act’s institution was soon followed by mergers, buyouts, and consolidations of some of the largest Americans telecommunication corporations.
In recent years, the commission’s regulation of internet providers has led to contentious disagreement around the issue of net neutrality. Net neutrality refers to the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all internet traffic equally and not block, slow down, or charge fees for certain content. Prior to 2017, the FCC generally upheld net neutrality but has since rejected it.
Social Security Administration1935
Established: August 14, 1935
Mission: To deliver social security services that meet the changing needs of the public.
Reason for creation: Congress created the Social Security Board to help elderly Americans obtain basic living expenses as their earning power declined with age; the Board was renamed the Social Security Administration(SSA) in 1946.
The Great Depression plunged the country into a period of economic turmoil and, in doing so, revealed many of the vulnerabilities the industrial revolution had created. Millions of Americans became unemployed and were unable to procure even basic necessities, and elderly citizens were especially impacted. By the 1930s, most other industrialized nations had some form of public social security program and public outcry for a public pension system began to grow. Throughout the first several years of the Great Depression, various programs were proposed and debated without any becoming law.
Ultimately, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a program based on European systems of economic security where current workers contributed a portion of their income to fund the pensions of retired citizens. FDR formed the Committee on Economic Security (CES) to draft such a program. The CES’s proposed program included a pension for the elderly, unemployment benefits, health insurance for those with financial need, benefits for widows with children, and assistance for disabled citizens. After extensive congressional debate, the legislation which ultimately reached FDR’s desk, the Social Security Act of 1935 only included federal benefits programs for retirees and the unemployed but did include money for states to help some of the other groups mentioned in the CES’s proposal. The act established the Social Security Board to manage and run the programs.
In 1946, the Social Security Board was renamed the Social Security Administration.
Changes since establishment: Congress has made several significant changes in the responsibilities and powers of the program. In 1956, a disability program was added to Social Security in the form of an amendment to the original Social Security Act. In 1965, Medicare, a Social Security health insurance plan was added. In 1975, automatic cost of living adjustments were instituted. Since the 1970s, most amendments to Social Security have been made in an effort to keep the program solvent.
Learn moreThe Great Depression revealed many of the vulnerabilities created by the industrial revolution, particularly in regard to older workers. Congress created the Social Security Board to help elderly Americans obtain basic living expenses as their earning power declined with age.
Environmental Protection Agency1970
Established: December 2, 1970
Mission: To establish, monitor, and enforce national regulations that protect human health and the environment.
Reason for creation: Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency to consolidate an array of long-standing and new federal environmental responsibilities under one organization in order to more efficiently and effectively coordinate federal activity. The industrial age brought great advances in standard of living, but also produced downsides (known as negative environmental externalities) that Congress sought to address as early as 1910 with passage of the Federal Insecticide Act to protect farmers and consumers from fraudulent or dangerous pesticide products. In the decades that followed, Congress passed numerous laws to protect the air, water, fish and wildlife, and other natural resources from industrial pollution.
This legislative activity increased in accordance with public concern during the late 50s and throughout the 1960s. A national environmental movement was taking shape and the public was demanding governmental responses to various environmental catastrophes which were occuring at the time. Books like The Silent Spring by Rachel Carlson began to increase public awareness of the dangers of household products like pesticides. Other environmental problems were more obvious: industrial waste was causing rivers to catch on fire, oil spills were destroying beaches, and smog-engulfed cities were threatening the public health of tens of millions of Americans.
Outcry about these issues eventually culminated in 1970 with President Richard Nixon presenting a 37-point message to Congress about the dire need for extensive federal action on environmental issues. Nixon’s message included a call for large investment in water quality improvements, the institution of air quality and emissions standards, the imposition of lead gas taxes, measures to prevent and address oil spills, and much more. Nixon also created a council tasked with identifying how to best organize federal programs in order to fulfill the goals laid out in his congressional message. The council came to the conclusion that a single agency focused on protecting human health and the environment could provide the most efficient execution of the law. So, Nixon returned to Congress, this time with a proposal to consolidate environmental responsibilities under a new agency: the Environmental Protection Agency. Congress quickly approved the proposal.
The EPA’s responsibilities included researching the sources and effects of various pollutants, monitoring the state of the environment, establishing environmental baselines so as to measure changes in the state of the environment, setting and enforcing standards for air and water quality as well as pollutant levels, and providing guidance and expertise to businesses, states, and localities on environmental issues.
Changes since establishment: In the decades since the EPA’s establishment, scientific knowledge about the environment has grown extensively, and with it our knowledge of modern society’s threat to the ecological stability of the planet. In response, the EPA’s jurisdiction and authority has mostly expanded despite often strong opposition from regulated industries. Landmark pieces of environmental legislation such as the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Acts of 1972 and 1977, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (which created the superfund program), the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1986, and many others have relied on the EPA for enforcement.
The EPA has also played an essential role in the US response to the depletion of the ozone layer from harmful emissions and to global warming and the effects of climate change. The Agency advocated for signing the Montreal Protocol, which called for global efforts to protect the ozone layer, created the Energy Star program that fostered a market-based effort to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and supported the Paris Climate Accord which set reduction requirements for countries’ greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit future impacts of climate change.The industrial age brought great advances in standard of living, but also produced downsides that Congress tried to address over decades. Finally, under President Nixon, Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency to consolidate an array of long-standing and new federal environmental responsibilities under one organization in order to more efficiently and effectively coordinate federal activity.
Federal Election Commission1974
Established: October 15, 1974
Mission: To protect the integrity of the federal campaign finance process by providing transparency and fairly enforcing and administering federal campaign finance laws.
Reason for creation: Creation of the Federal Election Commission culminated a history of efforts to limit the influence of wealth and power on elections.
Concerns over the influence of money on political elections date back to the first half of the 19th century. President Andrew Jackson’s strategy of partisan political patronage, starting in his 1828 presidential campaign, first made campaign finance a core part of the American political system (as did the large amount of money spent on anti-Jackson literature by the Bank of the United States during the “Bank War”). Utilizing what would become known as the “spoils system”, Jackson promised positions of influence in his government to individuals and businesses who supported him during his campaign. He also relied on monetary donations from loyal civil servants to run his campaigns. This system of patronage continued without meaningful challenges until an 1867 Naval Appropriations Bill made it illegal for government officials to solicit political donations from naval yard workers. A hundred years of further efforts to limit the spoils system followed:
- 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Act expanded the 1867 rule to include other groups of civil servants and required that civil servants be selected based on merit rather than political loyalty.
- 1907 Tillman Act prohibited corporations from spending money to influence federal elections (and in 1943 was expanded to include labor unions). It lacked any substantial enforcement mechanisms.
- 1910 (with amendments in 1911 and 1925) Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) expanded on the Tillman Act by instituting spending limits on campaigns and established new provisions requiring political parties to report all accepted donations.
- 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) repealed and replaced the FCPA) and set stricter standards for funding disclosures as well as some types of contributions. It permitted corporations and labor unions to solicit voluntary campaign contributions from members, employees, and shareholders.
- 1971 Revenue Act set up a public campaign fund with money donated by taxpayers who had the option to check a box on their income tax returns to make the contribution.
After reports of serious financial abuses during the 1972 Presidential campaign, Congress amended FECA to set limits on contributions by individuals, political parties and PACs. The 1974 amendment established the FEC as an independent agency responsible for administering and enforcing campaign finance laws.
Changes since establishment: Throughout the 1970s, the FECA was amended several times address several Supreme Court rulings that generally upheld the constitutionality of the FECA and the FEC’s structure and principles but also called for a loosening of restrictions on campaign spending limits.
The McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002 was the first major campaign finance reform in several decades and sought to address two main issues: soft money and issue advocacy. Soft money, outlawed in federal elections by BCRA, refers to funds donated to political parties for expressed purposes other than campaigning (and thus were not regulated by existing campaign finance law) but that often ultimately end up supporting those efforts. The act also prohibited corporations and unions from airing ads for specific candidates in the weeks before elections.
In the almost two decades since its institution, several Supreme Court rulings have rendered BCRA essentially powerless. The court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission overturned much of BCRA and gave corporations and unions the right to spend unlimited amounts of money influencing American politics. Then, in 2014, the court’s ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission also overturned BCRA’s two year aggregate limits on campaign contributions.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau2011
Established: July 21, 2011
Mission: To protect consumers in the financial markets from unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices and to take action against companies that break the law.
Reason for creation: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), authorized by the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, was formed in the aftermath of the financial crisis in the late 2000s as a means of creating more transparent and accountable oversight of the financial markets. The CFPB was designed to provide a single point of accountability for enforcing federal consumer financial laws and protecting consumers in the financial marketplace. Before, that responsibility was divided among several federal agencies including the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and others.
During the second half of the 20th century, as financial markets grew more complex and more deeply embedded in American’s everyday lives, several pieces of legislation were instituted to protect consumers as they navigated the changing financial environment.
The 1968 Truth in Lending Act (TILA) required credit companies to provide consumers with information about the terms, costs, and conditions associated with their services. The Fair Credit Reporting Act in 1968, the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) in 1975, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) in 1978 and the Fair Credit and Charge Card Disclosure Act (FCCCA) in 1989 all added to the Truth in Lending Act to protect consumers against billing errors, abusive collection methods, and to specify and expand the types of information creditors are required to disclose to consumers.
These legislative projects were in large part inspired by a 1962 speech by President John F. Kennedy where he called for what would eventually be known as the Consumer Bill of Rights. In his speech, Kennedy outlined four general rights that he believed all consumers should be guaranteed: the right to safety from purchased products and services, the right to information about those products and services, the right to choose between various providers, and the right for consumers’ complaints about services or products to be heard by those with the authority to regulate the providers. In 1985 the United Nations adopted the Consumer Bill of Rights and expanded it to include the right to basic necessities, the right to compensation for damages caused by faulty products or services, the right to education about how to make competent consumer choices, and the right to a healthy environment in which to make these decisions.
Changes since establishment: Since its relatively recent establishment, the CFPB has not seen many major changes. It has, however, been amended twice under the Trump Administration: once to repeal the CFPB’s power to enforce anti-discrimination standards in the auto industry and then again to entirely exempt certain banks from CFPB oversight.
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