Politics and water
Burton’s travels instilled in him a sense of civic responsibility, and in 1886 he began his single term as a member of city council. That brief experience propelled him to run for and win a seat in the U.S. House in 1888. He served a term representing the Ohio 21st District, but lost his bid for re-election in 1890. Four years later, he was nominated as the Republicans’ man, and Burton won that election, and the next seven.
As a representative, Burton took a special interest in federal waterways projects, which were often loaded with pork and did little to improve the overall viability of America’s inland transportation system.
For example, Congress would appropriate millions of dollars to improve a branch of the Ohio River so it would support navigation but ignore the fact that once the barge reached the Ohio, it would encounter shallow water that prevented further movement. Another problem was that Congress attempted to fund too many projects at one time, which resulted in parceling out appropriations at an ineffectual rate.
“We ought to treat water as an entirety: navigation, water power, purification of water, prevention of floods and there is nothing better than this House can do than to frame some system under which they shall be treated, not merely in reference to navigation, as a separate unit, but to bring all together as an asset of this people as important as the land,” Burton stated in his vision for the nation’s inland waterways.
Burton’s protean approach caught the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, who appointed him chairman of the Inland Waterways Commission in 1907 and National Waterways Commission in 1909.
In those positions, Burton pushed for overarching policies that ensured uniformity and functionality across the inland waterways. Burton also supported construction of the Panama Canal and pushed through Congress the legislation that authorized its construction and established it as a politically neutral zone.
One of his most enduring contributions when it comes to waterways was his work in preserving Niagara Falls. Commercial interests were already entrenched at the falls and salivating at the possibilities of cheap energy in the late 19th century. Burton worried that their greed would push development all the way to the cataract, and one of the great natural treasures of two nations would thereby be destroyed.
Thus, during the 59th Congress, Burton went to bat for a class of people he had no connection to — honeymooners — and conducted extensive hearings before the Rivers and Harbors Committee on the matter of preserving the falls. The legislation that came out of those efforts incorporated treaty provisions that illustrated Burton’s abilities as a statesman. The provisions prevented power companies from using the courts to attack the legislation’s constitutionality and thereby protected the resource from assault.
“Through the years every person who enjoys the majestic beauty of Niagara Falls will owe a debt of gratitude to Theodore Burton for saving this unique natural scenic spectacle from depletion and defacement by the great power companies,” wrote Crissey. “It was a distinguished bachelor’s most gallant gesture to the marriage shrine.”
Burton’s stance on the falls also came as a surprise because he was, in his Cleveland law days, a corporate lawyer. Yet he resisted the influence of big business and co-sponsored the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
He also was “in continuous revolt” against the patronage system.
“For one, I am willing to vote for a bill forbidding any Representative on this floor from making any recommendation for any position in any of the Executive Departments of the Government,” Burton declared when the Civil Service Bill came before the House on Jan. 7, 1898. “And I would do it ... because it would relieve us of a burden that at times is too grievous to be borne. Every member here must choose between efficient service as a Representative of the people and the giving of so large a share of his time to solicitation for offices as to render his work inefficient and unsatisfactory.”
Eight years later, Burton was still talking about civil service and this burdensome cost of government. He despised any kind of waste in government and many of his political associates called him “tight” and a “crank on the ethics of public expenditures.”
Then they’d add, “However, I’d like to know that Burton would administer my estate when I’m gone. I’d like to know that my family would get every nickel of it.”