Tapping the Federal Treasury
T he great hurricane of 1928 compelled Florida politicians to face a painful reality. Convinced that the state would transform swamplands into fertile fields, thousands of farmers had moved into the Lake Okeechobee region and capitalists had invested millions of dollars in sugar fields and cattle ranches. Yet the state's $18 million expenditure on canals and levees had been insufficient to save these people from disaster. To prevent future floods and complete the reclamation work, engineers now estimated that some $20 million more would have to be spent. But the Everglades Drainage District was paralyzed. It could not collect the drainage taxes; it could not borrow money; it could not meet the payments on its bonds.
Confronted by this situation, Florida authorities appealed to Congress for federal aid. In doing so, they were acting in keeping with a tradition as old as Florida politics. The territory's first representatives to Congress had sought federal dollars for harbors, lighthouses, highways, and canals. After statehood was achieved, Florida senators and representatives regularly filed bills seeking construction of federal buildings and military and naval bases, improvement of rivers and harbors, and surveys for projected canals. This was not, of course, a proclivity peculiar to Florida politicians. Legislators from all the states boasted about how much federal money they had been able to win for projects within their own districts. Since they all had similar needs, they gladly supported each other's pet proposals.
But the pork-barrel politics of the nineteenth century had operated within certain constraints imposed by the constitutional theories of the day. It ws indisputably within the power of Congress to build post offices, establish military and naval bases, and dredge rivers and harbors. But could Congress appropriate money for irrigation works, electric power plants, flood control projects, and aid for the unemployed? Before 1900 most legislators would have said