Patman: A Populist’s Legacy
Wright Patman, the great Texas populist, represented the people of his East Texas district for almost half a century in the House of Representatives before pneumonia claimed him at Bethesda Naval Hospital early last Sunday.
He also spoke for all consumers, homeowners and tenants who needed a champion against the power of big money and banking and their fraternal interlock with the Federal Reserve and other bank regulatory agencies.
Patman wasted little time after his election to the House in 192S before taking out after the large New York banks and their Washington patrons.
That cost him about 20 years of being the chairman of the House Banking & Currency Committee because his more senior colleagues delayed his request to become a member of the committee and lost him valuable seniority. When he finally became chairman in 1963, he made up for lost time.
A flood of studies, reports and educational materials poured from the committee and its enthusiastic staff. He became a public educator of the people on money and banking, and his studies of conflicts of interest and financial interlocks radiated sunshine into long-darkened corridors of the powerful money centers.
A lifelong opponent of high interest rates, Patman would denounce and lecture alternatively one large bank executive witness after another at his committee hearings.
He was a genial legislator, notwithstanding his sharp criticism, remarkable perseverance and legendary battles with other pro-banking members of his committee.
But above all, Patman was unsung. He was right too often too early and committed the sin of repeating his charges because he wanted change.
His accomplishments, often despite overwhelming antagonism by his colleagues, are legion.
It was Wright Patman who did so much to launch the credit union movement in America with its current 30 million members. It was Patman who in the 1930s hammered away at monopolistic banking power, conflicts of interest and the lack of accountability of the Federal Reserve to Congress or the people.
No matter how often he was proved right or how important causes, the press gave him little recognition. After all, he was from Texarkana, he appeared old-fashioned, almost quaint, and kept repeating himself on the same old big-banking abuses.
So even when he was first with the big stories, few commentators did him justice. Back in 1967 at the peak of his investigations of corporate-related foundations, he came upon the infiltration of some of these foundations and their recipient organizations by the CIA.
Two years later he was leading a congressional move to harness the sprawling power of the giant bank holding companies.
In 1971 he became the first member of the House to take on Wilbur Mills in a successful floor challenge to the usual practice of unanimously passing special tax loopholes for special companies.
In 1972 he started the first investigation into the Watergate matter before being squelched by a majority of his own committee. He and his chief legislative staffer, Benet Gellman, drafted the comprehensive financial institutions reform bill now under consideration.
Always receptive to new ideas to provide easier credit to consumers, he enthusiastically hacked a pending bill to create a consumer cooperative finance institution.
Last month, he inserted a detailed statement in the congressional record showing the glaring interlocks between the Business Roundtable — a top executive lobbying group — and the Federal Reserve System.
He called them “honeycombed with interlocking personnel” in their common opposition to a proposed bill permitting the audit of the Federal Reserve by the General Accounting Office.
In recent months, Pat-man was pleased with the almost daily disclosures of bank misdeeds and mismanagement — a pattern he had been talking about for years. He thought that such disclosures would produce a groundswell of support for bank reform legislation.
Perhaps they will. But to make it more likely, Wright Patman deserves another legacy beyond greater public understanding of what he has done in his long, often lonely struggle. His supporters can elect a person worthy of the Texas lawmaker.
Moreover, they can establish a public interest institution which would press Capitol Hill for banking reform as he did for decades inside those legislative halls.