President Harry Truman was desperate. With fewer than four months remaining before election day, his public approval rating stood at only 36 percent. Two years earlier, Congress had come under Republican control for the first time in a quarter century. His opponent, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, seemed already to be planning his own move to the White House. In search of a bold political gesture, the president turned to the provision in the Constitution that allows the president "on extraordinary occasions" to convene one or both Houses of Congress.
On 27 occasions, presidents have called both houses into extraordinary session to deal with urgent matters of war and economic crisis. The most recent of these extraordinary sessions convened in July 1948.
On July 15, several weeks after the Republican-controlled Congress had adjourned for the year leaving much business unfinished, Truman took the unprecedented step of using his presidential nomination acceptance speech to call both houses back into session. He delivered that speech under particularly trying circumstances. Without air conditioning, delegates sweltered in the Philadelphia convention hall's oven-like atmosphere. By the time the president finally stepped before the cameras in this first televised Democratic convention, organizers had lost all hope of controlling the schedule.
At 1:45 in the morning, speaking only from an outline, Truman quickly electrified the soggy delegates. In announcing the special session, he challenged the Republican majority to live up to the pledges of their own recently concluded convention to pass laws to ensure civil rights, extend Social Security coverage, and establish a national health-care program. "They can do this job in 15 days, if they want to do it." he challenged. That two-week session would begin on "what we in Missouri call 'Turnip Day,'" taken from the old Missouri saying, "On the twenty-fifth of July, sow your turnips, wet or dry."
Republican senators reacted scornfully. To Michigan's Arthur Vandenberg, it sounded like "a last hysterical gasp of an expiring administration." Yet, Vandenberg and other senior Senate Republicans urged action on a few measures to solidify certain vital voting blocs. "No!" exclaimed Republican Policy Committee chairman Robert Taft of Ohio. "We're not going to give that fellow anything." Charging Truman with abuse of a presidential prerogative, Taft blocked all legislative action during the futile session. By doing this, Taft amplified Truman's case against the "Do-nothing Eightieth Congress" and contributed to his astounding November come-from-behind victory.
Hamby, Alonzo L. Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.