When Harry Met Lindsay

Thanks to the good people at the Truman Library, I can provide a little more background on the relationship between President Truman and Comptroller General Warren. You can decide for yourself its relevance for evaluating Warren’s 1948 opinions on the Recess Appointments Clause, but it seems to me that, at the least, it shows that the executive branch exaggerates when it presents Warren as a defender of legislative branch interests and prerogatives. See, e.g. Brief of the United States in U.S. v. Miller 15 (contending that Warren’s opinions should be viewed in the context that the Comptroller General is an “officer of the Legislative Branch” and therefore “subservient to Congress”).

In the spring of 1947 Warren issued two opinions that rejected attempts by administrative agencies, in one case the Coal Mines Administration and in the other the U.S. Maritime Commission, to circumvent statutory restrictions on their authorities. These decisions led Truman to personally phone Warren to complain. The tone of this call, which occurred on Monday, June 30, 1947, must be left to the imagination, but on Wednesday Warren sent Truman a letter which begins “My dear Mr. President: Needless to say I was quite disturbed when I received your telephone call on June 30 . . .” and follows with a lengthy explanation of why he had no option but to decide the cases as he did.

I will spare you the details, but Warren emphasizes that he bent over backwards to assist the agencies in resolving their problems, including in one case personally telephoning the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee to lobby him on behalf of the Maritime Commission. As I noted previously, there is no evidence of similar consultation with Congress before Warren decided adversely to its interests the following summer.

Warren closes his letter with a description of his office’s role that might seem more appropriate for the Office of Legal Counsel than for a legislative office “subservient to Congress:”

I want to assure you, Mr. President, that the officials of this office have a sympathetic understanding of the critical problems that many times confront the President and the departments and establishments of the Government. Many of them work overtime gratuitously on nights, week-ends and holidays in an effort to assist the Executive agencies in solving their problems and otherwise to extend the fullest cooperation. But just as those agencies are amenable to the law, and must abide by legislative enactments, so too must the General Accounting Office in passing upon matters coming before it. Occasions arise, of course, when we must decide questions without regard to our personal sympathies and, sometimes, adversely to the wishes of administrative officials. I know, too, the tremendous burden you must bear and the fact that many times matters are called to your attention so briefly or in such manner that the many details thereof—as in these two cases—are not made known to you. It is simply for that reason that I have considered it appropriate to send you this letter in order that you may have the complete picture before you in writing and know the thorough and sympathetic consideration that the matters involved received in the General Accounting Office.

Truman was evidently mollified, because he responded with a note of appreciation on July 11, closing as follows:

As you know, I have been having a lot of difficulties with the Congress, and with other things, and I was very certain that it was not your policy to add to those difficulties. I am very glad I called you because I know you feel better, and I am sure I do, over our exchange of information.

I don’t think it is unreasonable to suspect that when Warren reviewed the politically sensitive RAC cases the following year, he was keenly aware of the need to give “sympathetic consideration” to the administration’s request so as not “to add to [Truman’s] difficulties” and perhaps to avoid another call from “give ‘em hell Harry.”