H. R. Gross, Iowa’s Congressional Curmudgeon

Representative H. R. Gross speaking at the dedication of the Waterloo, Iowa municipal airport, June 10, 1951.

by Spencer Howard

One of the seldom used collections at the Hoover Library is the papers of Harold R. Gross, who represented northern Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives for 13 terms from 1949 to 1975. In his 26 years in Congress no major bill bearing his name, either as sponsor or co-sponsor, was ever passed. This lack of legislative accomplishments was not an indication of loafing; Gross was known for his work ethic and nearly perfect attendance. Gross was deeply committed to limited government and vigorously opposed any increase in federal expenditures. He claimed to have read every bill that came before the House, which was substantiated by his propensity in open debate for pointing out embarrassing provisions, erroneous wording, and wasteful expenditures. His critics called him the “abominable no-man,” while his admirers called him the “Congressional conscience,” the “watchdog of the Treasury,” and the “taxpayer’s best friend.”

Gross voted against appropriations bills no matter which party proposed them, including virtually all foreign aid, all of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society measures including Medicare, much of the spending on the U.S. space program, and numerous congressional pay raises. In his office he displayed a framed cynosure, “Nothing is easier than expenditure of public money. It does not appear to belong to anybody. The temptation is overwhelming to bestow it on somebody.” Gross introduced legislation in each session of Congress requiring a balanced federal budget and gradual repayment of the national debt, even though he knew such bills had no chance of passing. In honor of his persistence, his colleagues reserved for his legislation the bill number H. R. 144, a rebus for “H. R. Gross” (144 equals one gross).

Before his Congressional career Gross worked as a journalist, first as a newspaper reporter and editor, then as a newscaster for WHO radio in Des Moines. During the Depression, “the fastest tongue on the radio” built a reputation as an advocate for farmers, but Republican party insiders labeled him too radical because of his association with the populist Iowa Farmers’ Union. In 1940 Gross ran for the Republican gubernatorial nomination and finished second to the incumbent, George Wilson, but received a majority of votes in rural counties. Gross waited until 1948 to make another attempt at politics when he defeated Iowa’s longest-tenured Congressman, John Gwynne, in the Republican primary with a surprising combination of support from both labor and farmers. He won every subsequent election, usually by a wide margin, until he chose not to run in 1974.

Like Herbert Hoover, Gross was a Republican Party outsider. Both men stood by their ideals at all costs, sometimes in defiance of their party’s demands. Both men faced stiff opposition and negative campaigning from the party’s establishment or “Old Guard.” And like Hoover, Gross has long been overlooked or misunderstood by historians, who fail to understand that sometimes saying “no” can be just as significant as saying “yes.”

One thought on “H. R. Gross, Iowa’s Congressional Curmudgeon

  1. Spencer, thanks for sharing the story of H R Gross and placing him in the context of HH. I’m pleased that the HPL has the papers, the appropriate place for this person who served on the national level of government from Iowa.

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