Title

Problems of Government Regulation: The Mississippi Railroad Commission, 1884-1956

Date of Award

1980

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

History

First Advisor

John Ray Skates

Advisor Department

History

Abstract

The complex relationship of government and economics is an important aspect of the modern industrial economy. Giant corporations determined the prosperity of entire regions and challenged a seemingly ineffective political system. State and federal governments realized that only a new structure of government could cope with this concentrated economic power. The railroad industry was the key to the industrial growth of the late nineteenth century. First state governments, and then the federal government, established regulatory commissions to control the railroad companies which provided an essential service to the individual citizen. This account of the Mississippi Railroad Commission is a longitudinal study of one state regulatory agency between 1884 and 1956. The commission, renamed the Public Service Commission in 1938, began as a regulator of railroads. For twenty years, it also supervised the state penitentiary. The state legislature also delegated to the commission authority over telephone and telegraph companies, motor carriers, and finally, in 1956, electric and gas utilities. The establishment of the commission occurred only after a struggle of several years. Counties dominated by smaller farmers favored regulation, counties controlled by planters opposed regulation. The availability of rail transport was another factor. Counties with railroads supported regulation; counties without much track feared that regulation would prevent the creation of the regulatory commission, a small staff, heavy responsibilities, and an awkward enforcement procedure limited its impact on the state's economy. Political considerations dominated the selection of the commissioners. The governor appointed the first commissioners and filled the vacancy when a comissioner died or resigned his post. Then the state legislature and the state Democratic convention chose the regulators. Since 1903, the voters in the Democratic primary picked the commissioners. Multiple regression analysis of the primaries suggested that Mississippi political factions and alliances tended to be shallow and shifting. The concentration on politics lessened the quality of the commission because knowledge of regulation, transportation, or law carried little weight in the selection of commissioners. Consequently, the commission had serious difficulty in fulfilling its functions. The agency failed to win respect from other public bodies or the general public. The integrity and competency of some commissioners were questioned, and several men were forced to resign although they escaped criminal charges. The commissioners found themselves hampered by the decisions of state and federal judges and the Interstate Commerce Commission. The courts interpreted regulatory laws strictly and allowed the commission little discretion. The commission could regulate only intrastate rates and service, but most traffic was interstate in nature and therefore beyond the commission's jurisdiction. The ICC steadily broadened its sphere of activities and consequently narrowed that of the state commission. The commission failed to accomplish its mission. The institutional restrictions around the commission and the mediocre men chosen for the commission prevented the agency from exerting any significant restraining influence on the industries of Mississippi.