President Herbert Hoover

The House votes today on legislation which would dramatically increase federal involvement in the realm of volunteerism, continuing the trend toward an America in which “public service” means working for the government.

This is a topic which has been of particular interest to a certain president, who said, “Our people have in recent years developed a new-found capacity for cooperation among themselves to effect high purposes in public welfare. […] The government should assist and encourage these movements of collective self-help by itself cooperating with them.” He added that without this expansion of federal aid, its “stimulation of private giving and coordination [would] be destroyed,” and that such expansion is “most essential to the intelligent carrying out of the provisions of all relief activities whether private or public.”

He claimed he regrets the dramatic increase of federal involvement. “But, he said, “we are fighting the economic consequences of…unjustified fear as to the future of the United States. The battle to set our economic machine in motion in this emergency takes new forms and requires new tactics from time to time. We used such emergency powers [before]; we can use them to fight the depression, the misery and suffering from which are equally great.”

The president who spoke those words was not Barack Obama. It was a fellow Progressive, Herbert Hoover. The legislation of which he spoke was the Emergency Relief and Construction Act of 1932, an early forerunner of the GIVE (House) and Serve America (Senate) acts. Like the current legislation, the ERCA used tough economic times to justify dramatic increases in federal aid for, and regulation of, temporary government jobs aimed at meeting national needs.

It didn’t work for Hoover. Why imitate him?