Sam Rayburn and Rural Electrification

In a 48 year career as a Congressman from Bonham, Texas, seventeen of which he served as Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn’s proudest accomplishment was passing the Rural Electrification Act. Rayburn was an outspoken supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, shepherding the Securities Act of 1933, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, the Federal Communications Act of 1934, and the Public Utilities Act of 1935 through Congress. Even while acting as a national leader, Rayburn made sure to stay in touch with his rural Texas roots through his constituents, many of whom were farmers. As a farmer himself, Rayburn knew what electric power might mean to his state's "unwilling servants of the washtub and water pump." He pushed rural electrification for them and for the common people of America.

The drive to electrify farms and ranches began on May 11, 1935, when President Roosevelt issued an Executive Order creating the Rural Electrification Administration under the Public Works Administration. By January 1936, however, the Roosevelt administration and key legislators had grown unhappy with the progress on rural electrification. They decided to change the focus of the program from work relief to a government lending program for member-owned electric cooperatives. Senator George Norris of Nebraska introduced a bill for that purpose in the Senate. In the House, the bill was originally destined for sponsorship by another congressman, but Sam Rayburn, knowing the bill needed a powerful sponsor to fend off utility company opposition, convinced the House Parliamentarian to give the bill to him.

The Norris-Rayburn Act established the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) as an independent government agency. The REA promised to loan money to build electric power distribution to rural areas. Controversy arose over whether private utilities would have access to the loans. Senator Norris was adamant that they would not, and the bill passed the Senate with a prohibition against loans to private enterprise. Rayburn, facing extreme opposition from House members and the utility lobby, was willing to compromise and allowed some loans to private enterprise. The House bill was amended to allow that feature. In conference, Rayburn skillfully convinced Norris to compromise, allowing loans to private utilities, but with a preference for publicly-owned utilities.The Norris-Rayburn Act became the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.

Rayburn’s files are filled with correspondence with cooperative boards and REA administrators that he worked with over the next several years to help Texans obtain electric power. His later career would involve several electric power projects, such as the Denison Dam and Lake Texoma. By 1959, Rayburn proudly stated that ninety percent of farm homes in the U.S. were electrified, compared to three percent in the early 1930s. When Rayburn died in 1961, rural electric cooperatives lauded him as “our good friend and strongest champion.” Sam Rayburn proudly brought his people out of the dark.

Images

"Samuel Taliaferro Rayburn" by Douglas Chandor

"Samuel Taliaferro Rayburn" by Douglas Chandor

First elected to Congress in 1912 from Bonham, Texas, Rayburn became Speaker in 1941 and served 17 years as Speaker, with two interruptions when Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. Renowned for his integrity and quiet effectiveness, Rayburn was a leader in Congress during the New Deal and World War II and was a mentor to future President Lyndon Johnson. But, he was proudest of his work on the Rural Electrification Act. | Source: http://history.house.gov/ View File Details Page

The Sam Rayburn House Museum, Bonham, Texas

The Sam Rayburn House Museum, Bonham, Texas

Congressman Sam Rayburn built this house in 1916 as part of his 121 acre farm. Like other rural farms, the house had no electricity. In 1935, Rayburn paid to have a mile of electric line strung from town to the house. It was the only mile of power line serving the rural portions of Fannin County until after the Rural Electrification Act. View File Details Page

Executive Order establishing the Rural Electrification Administration.

Executive Order establishing the Rural Electrification Administration.

President Roosevelt claimed he was inspired to create the REA after learning how much electricity cost for his Warm Springs, Georgia retreat. Sam Rayburn claimed that FDR was unaware of the magnitude of the problem until he brought it to his attention. | Source: Image: National Archives http://media.nara.gov/rediscovery/08145_2006.pdf http://research.archives.gov/description/300002 | Creator: Paul E. Anderson View File Details Page

A portion of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936

A portion of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936

FDR™s Executive Order establishing the REA proved to be ineffective. Intended as a work relief measure working primarily through existing utility companies, the order created little rural electric service. Twenty five percent of the $100 million appropriated for it was earmarked for wages and 90% of that was to be dedicated to workers taken from relief rolls. Rayburn and the other sponsors to the Act changed the focus to the building of rural electric lines. It authorized loans to rural electric cooperatives and loans to individuals for wiring houses and buying electric appliances. | Source: Image: National Archives http://media.nara.gov/media/images/28/22/28-2106a.jpg http://research.archives.gov/description/299845 | Creator: Paul E. Anderson View File Details Page

Poster announcing that electricity is coming to you.

Poster announcing that electricity is coming to you.

View File Details Page

Sam Rayburn statue in front of the Sam Rayburn Library in Bonham, Texas

Sam Rayburn statue in front of the Sam Rayburn Library in Bonham, Texas

Sam Rayburn's library includes a replica of his Speaker's office in Washington, D.C., his personal library and many other items from his long career. Mr. Rayburn speaking in later years about the Rural Electrification Act said, "When free enterprise had the opportunity to electrify farm homes - after fifty years they had electrified 3 percent. Today after the Democrats put in that "socialistic' thing called REA, more than 90 percent of the rural homes in Texas have electricity." | Source: Photo: Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2015630031/ View File Details Page

Franklin Roosevelt signs the declaration of war against Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941

Franklin Roosevelt signs the declaration of war against Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941

Speaker Sam Rayburn is fifth person from the left in the middle of the picture. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Paul E. Anderson, “Sam Rayburn and Rural Electrification,” East Texas History, accessed June 26, 2017, http://easttexashistory.org/items/show/73.
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