University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Public Affairs


Daniel R. Ernst


American lawyers and law professors commonly turn to the New Deal for insights into the law and politics of today’s administrative state. Usually, they have looked to agencies created in the 1930s that became the foundation of the postwar political order. Some have celebrated these agencies; others have deplored them as the core of an elitist, antidemocratic Deep State. This Article takes a different tack by studying the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and its predecessor the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), an agency created before the New Deal. For most of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first two presidential terms, the FCC languished within the “Shallow State,” bossed about by patronage-seeking politicians, network lobbyists, and the radio bar. When Roosevelt finally tried to clean up the agency, his success or failure turned on whether the FCC could hire the kind of young, smart, hard-working lawyers who at other agencies had proven themselves to be the “shock troops of the New Deal.” Only after James Lawrence Fly, formerly general counsel of the Tennessee Valley Authority, became chairman and hired lawyers like himself did the FCC set sail. It cleaned up its licensing of radio stations and addressed monopoly power in the industry without becoming the tool of an authoritarian president or exceeding its legislative and political mandates.