No political job has delighted Republican members of Congress more over the years than poking it to the opposition when Democratic administrations have had to ask Democratic Congresses to raise the ceiling on the national debt. This time, however, it's been the other way 'round. It fell to the Reagan administration to be obliged to ask Congress to push the debt ceiling past the trillion dollar mark.
It was the Civil War that first sent the national debt over the $1-billion level and World War I that put it over the $10-billion level. The Coolidge and Hoover administrations actually reduced the debt from a peak of around $25 billion to less than $17 billion. But all that changed with the coming of the Great Depression and the consequent arrival in Washington of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal.
FDR threw open the Treasury vaults, and billions flowed forth for a maze of New Deal programs designed to break the Depression's back. Appropriations began to be counted in the billions, not just the millions. In the spring of 1935, Congress approved FDR's proposal to give the Works Progress Administration power to spend a record $4.88 billion. It then fell to Harry Hopkins to manage what became a massive combination of honest job creation, simple make-work derided as "leaf raking" and a political pork barrel bonanza for the Democrats. And no newspaper more violently attacked what it called the "fruitless fiasco" of WPA than did The Washington Post.
An unexpected result of the multi-billion dollar WPA legislation was a typographical crisis for The Post and doubtless for other newspapers as well. Nobody caught the mood of the times better than did Raymond Clapper, then a leading Post reporter and later to be a distinguished Scripps-Howard columnist who would be killed covering World War II.
Clapper had the capital laughing with this item in his Post column of April 17, 1935:
"After holding out against the New Deal for two years, thinking it might blow over, The Washington Post has surrendered--typographically. The publisher has had to buy skinny headline linotype matrices to take care of the billions of dollars that figure in the New Deal news.
"The Post's Old Deal headline type, of broad Tory girth, was designed to deal only in millions thus:
"$4,880,000 (this filled a line of type)
"Since the works bill passed, billion- dollar type has been purchased. It looks like this:
"$4,880,000,000 (this equally filled a line).
"If Mr. Roosevelt throws one more digit at us, The Post will match the rubber money, dollar for dollar, with rubber type."
Given President Reagan's current struggle with budget deficits, now about to push the national debt over the trillion dollar mark, it is worth noting that two days after Clapper's column appeared, the House passed the bill creating Social Security. "It was an open secret," The Post reported next day, "that many Republicans were not in sympathy with the measure as drafted, but dared not be recorded against it for fear they would be snowed under at the next election." The GOP already was down to only 113 House members; 77 of them voted for Social Security, 18 against, some ducked the roll call. Social Security, under that House bill, was to begin on Jan. 1, 1937 with benefits ranging from $52.50 a month to a maximum of $85 and with paycheck and pay envelope deductions beginning at one per cent of the first $3,000 of annual wages, a maximum of $30 a year.
The Post's 1935 typographical problem described by Ray Clapper was how to squeeze the multi-billion dollar figures into a one-column wide headline. In those days, page one consisted of eight columns, but now there are only six. Although the width of The Post's pages today is somewhat less than it was in 1935, each column now can handle more type, including more figures. Even so, the current size of the us ual one-column, page-one headline is such that it cannot encompass "$1,000,000,000,000" in a single line; in fact, it can't even manage "$1,000,000,000" on one line. So The Post has to fall back, for example, on such usage as "$1.8 Billion," as it did the other day, or "$1 Trillion."
The Post, it turns out, never did lay in that stock of Clapper's "rubber type." But his "one more digit" is with us now.