Franklin D. Roosevelt

Letter on Appropriations for Highways and Roads.

December 20, 1937

My dear Mr. Cartwright:

Thank you for your letter of December sixteenth. I have understood fully your problems as Chairman of the Committee on Roads, and, frankly, having served in a legislative body myself, I appreciate the pulling and hauling when it comes to getting a slice of the Government's expenditures for one's own projects.

Also may I tell you that if we had all the money in the world to spend I would gladly go ahead with road building in every county in the United States on an even greater scale than we are doing at the present time.

But there are two factors which I know you will consider:

1. The Administration is making an honest effort to cut the budget down to a figure which will closely approximate the estimated tax receipts. That means that we ought to cut off appropriations which may be desirable but which are not essential.

2. That brings me to the second problem—the problem of what Einstein would call "relativity." Where can we cut? That is a matter, first, for the President to make recommendations, and, secondly, for the Congress to decide whether the recommendations for cuts should be carried out or changed by substituting different cuts.

As you know, up to 1919, the average amount of Federal aid to road building in the United States was less than $100,000,000 a year and now under authorizations and appropriations it will run to between $200,000,000 and $300,000,000 a year.

Also, as you doubtless know, money spent on Federal aid highways takes very few people directly off the relief rolls. It is true that many of the contractors' regular forces are kept at work and some people are put to work making cement, steel binder and other materials. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Federal aid highways give relatively little help to the several million Americans who are actually in pressing need. Local farm-to-market roads give a far higher percentage of relief employment than the Federal aid roads.

Therefore, speaking again of "relativity," if I have to get the budget down to a certain figure, obviously I must eliminate the proposed expenditures which provide the least work and favor those expenditures which give the most work.

The Congress has a perfect right constitutionally to exceed the budget, but, if the budget is exceeded, obviously the Congress must accept full responsibility, and obviously the Democratic members, which have such a large majority in the Congress, must equally accept the full responsibility.

If the Congress decides to keep on spending between two and three hundred million dollars a year on Federal aid highways, the Congress can, in its wisdom, reduce other appropriations to make up the difference.

The above facts may be unpalatable but, as you know, they are perfectly true. More than three thousand counties in the United States are glad to get every possible expenditure of Federal funds within their counties, but I know you will agree with me that if we legislated with that as the principal objective in mind, there would not be any Democratic Party and there would not be any solvent Government after a few years.

Always sincerely,

Honorable Wilburn Cartwright,

Chairman, Committee on Roads, House of Representatives,

Washington, D. C.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Letter on Appropriations for Highways and Roads. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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