July 26, 1948
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 July 15, 1948, 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 improve health care. "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-sixth 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." Taft surely knew that Truman had deftly placed Republicans in a no-win situation. The president "has us over a barrel," one Republican lawmaker conceded privately. "If we do as he asks, he'll claim all the credit. . . . If we don't . . . he'll blame . . . us for blocking his efforts." Vandenberg and other party strategists convinced Senator Taft to take action on a few measures to solidify key voting blocks.
At the conclusion of the 11-day Turnip Session, the 80th Congress sent two bills to the president for his signature: one aimed at inflation and one to spur housing starts. Though he signed both bills into law, predictably, Truman called the bills inadequate. "Would you say it was a do-nothing session, Mr. President?" asked one reporter at a press conference. "I would say it was a do-nothing session," Truman responded delightedly. "I think that's a good name for the 80th Congress." The term stuck: the "do-nothing" Congress. In November, defying pundits and pollsters, Truman won and Democrats gained majorities in both houses of Congress.
Hamby, Alonzo L. Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.