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Researchers have long argued that an important impetus for the creation of the administrative state was the desire to bring experts into government and especially into the regulation of business. Yet Progressive Era politicians did not focus on attracting experts when crafting one part of the administrative state, independent regulatory commissions. This article examines the contemporary understanding of regulatory commissions and shows that they were most often intended as a substitute for vacillating juries. Commissions’ most important advantage over juries was that they acquired experience in investigations of a single subject over time, not that their appointees were already academics or experts in a particular subject. This article also shows that appointments to these commissions did not demonstrate a desire for apolitical expertise. This is the first examination of all members appointed to the Interstate Commerce Commission, Federal Trade Commission, Federal Power Commission, Federal Communications Commission, and the Securities and Exchange Commission in the period from 1887 to 1935. This article finds that political and sectional balance, rather than previous expertise, were the most important criteria for these commissions’ members, at least until the late 1920s, after the end of the supposed Progressive Era.
While researchers have pointed to numerous methods of expanding state capacity in the Progressive Era, the literature has overlooked the creation of nominally private companies relying on implicit government guarantees, later known as government-sponsored enterprises. This article explains the novelty and structure of the nation's first such enterprises, the Federal Land Banks, and describes how their design embodied several fragilities that contributed to their collapse and bailout in 1932. The article then demonstrates why, despite these problems, the land banks became the model for subsequent enterprises and financial reforms.
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