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Thank You, Mr. Chairman: A Look at Panel’s Leaders

The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee is relatively young. It was created in 1913 as the Banking and Currency Committee and took on its present name 40 years ago. It has had 19 chairmen through the years. Sen. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.), who served from 1937 to 1947, held the gavel the longest. Here is a look at some of the chairmen:

Sen. Robert Owen (D-Okla.), chairman 1913-1919

The committee’s first chairman, Owen was the principal sponsor of legislation that created the Federal Reserve System. There is a small park named for him behind the Federal Reserve’s Eccles Building in Washington, D.C. Owen knew something about the banking system, as a co-founder and 10-year president of the First National Bank of Muskogee.

Owen, whose mother was part-Cherokee, also took an interest in Native American affairs. He taught at a Cherokee school in Oklahoma early in his career and later was a federal Indian agent. Much of his work in Congress focused on Native American issues.

Owen traveled to the Democratic National Convention in 1920 and sought the presidential nomination, but he lost out to Ohio Gov. James Cox. He died in 1947 at age 91.

Sen. George McLean (R-Conn.), chairman 1919-1927

The first Republican to head the committee, McLean presided at a time when Congress barred interstate banking and established states as the primary regulators of the insurance industry. But he’s best-known for other things: When he died, the Senator’s will established a nonprofit McLean Fund, which now operates a state-of-the-art elder care facility and a 4,200-acre game refuge in his home state. That was in keeping with some of his Congressional work — before he headed the Banking Committee, McLean was chairman of the Forest Reservations and Game Protection Committee.

Sen. Peter Norbeck (R-S.D.), chairman 1927-1933

As chairman during the height of the Great Depression, Norbeck presided over the committee when it passed the landmark Glass-Steagall Act, which established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and mandated separation between commercial and investment banking. The committee also investigated the stock market crash under Norbeck’s tenure.

Separate from his committee work, Norbeck helped win federal funding for the carving of Mount Rushmore and for the establishment of other South Dakota tourist attractions.

Sen. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.), chairman 1937-1947

Wagner was the patriarch of a powerful Empire State political family — his son, Robert Wagner Jr., spent three terms as mayor of New York. The elder Wagner was also a close adviser to another powerful New York Democrat, President Franklin Roosevelt. He introduced the Social Security Act bill into the Senate and also wrote several pro-labor laws, including the National Labor Relations Act.

Wagner resigned from the Senate in 1949 because of ill health and was succeeded by John Foster Dulles, who later served as secretary of State under President Dwight Eisenhower. Wagner lived four more years but died just half a year before his son was elected mayor.

Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), chairman 1955-1959

Fulbright is far better known for his 16 years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he helmed from the time that he left the Banking panel in 1959 to his defeat in the 1974 Democratic primary by then-Gov. Dale Bumpers. But he did preside over the Banking Committee when Congress passed the Bank Holding Company Act, which required Federal Reserve approval for the establishment of bank holding companies.

Fulbright, a leading Southern liberal during the civil rights era, was a mentor to fellow Arkansan and future President Bill Clinton, who served as an intern in Fulbright’s Senate office while attending Georgetown University.

Sen. John Sparkman (D-Ala.), chairman 1967-1975

Sparkman was chairman when the committee changed its name and also presided when the federal Community Development Block Grant Program was established in 1974. He had a 33-year Senate career and was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1952 when Adlai Stevenson was the candidate for president. But Sparkman’s vocal opposition to the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision put him at odds with his former running mate, who wound up as the Democratic White House nominee again in 1956.

Prior to his election to the Senate, Sparkman served five terms in the House, including a brief stint as Majority Whip. Sparkman’s grandson, attorney Taze Shepard, is seeking the Democratic nomination in Alabama’s 5th Congressional district this year.

Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), chairman 1975-1981, 1987-1989

Proxmire’s colorful Senate career began when Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) died. He was perhaps best known for developing the Golden Fleece awards, which he handed out regularly for wasteful government spending. One recipient sued Proxmire for defamation; the case was later settled out of court. Proxmire was frugal himself, raising no money for his last two Senate campaigns in 1976 and 1982, spending only $200 on filing fees and postage to return any campaign contributions that were sent his way.

As Banking chairman, he served when the Community Reinvestment Act became law and also helped develop the plan that saved New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s.

Proxmire also holds the record for most consecutive roll call votes in the Senate: 10,252 between April 20, 1966, and Oct. 18, 1988.

Several former chairmen are still alive, including:

• Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah), 1981-1987

• Sen. Donald Riegle (D-Mich.), 1989-1995

• Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.), 1995-1999

• Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), 1999-2001

• Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), 2001-2003

• Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), 2003-2007

Only Shelby is still serving in the Senate. He, of course, is now the ranking member on the panel.

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