Prentiss M. Brown was born at St. Ignace, Michigan on June 18, 1889. He was the son of James J. and Minnie Brown, his father having been at one time Detroit city attorney and later prosecuting attorney of Cheboygan and Mackinac counties. Brown was educated in the St. Ignace schools, graduating in 1906. He went to Albion College, graduating in 1911 with an A.B. degree. A scholarship in political economy attracted him to the University of Illinois where he worked from 1911 to 1914. In 1914 he returned to St. Ignace and commenced the practice of law with his father. In the fall of 1914, he was elected prosecuting attorney of Mackinac County on the Democratic ticket and was reelected for each succeeding term until 1926 when he voluntarily retired. In 1930 on the recommendation of the Supreme Court of Michigan he was appointed a member of the State Board of Law Examiners. He was reappointed in 1931 and again in 1936 (he declined reappointment in 1941).
In 1932 Brown was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the 11th District of Michigan, the first Democrat to be elected to Congress from that district. He was reelected in 1934 running approximately 10,000 votes ahead of his ticket. During his service in the House of Representatives, Brown was a member of one of its most important committees: Banking and Currency. Due to the banking crisis of 1933, this probably was the most vital committee in the House of Representatives in the first three years of the Roosevelt Administration. As a member of that important committee, he helped draft the legislation establishing many of the recovery agencies of the Government created to combat the depression. Some of these agencies are the Home Owners' Loan Corporation, the Banking Acts of 1933 and 1935 (including Federal Deposit Insurance). Brown was also active in the enactment of the legislation creating the Civilian Conservation Corps and several of the farm credit agencies which were under jurisdiction of the Banking Committee. In addition, Brown was a member of the first congressional committee created by House resolution to investigate duplication of Executive agencies.
Brown was elected to the Senate on November 3, 1936. Soon after his election, with the death of James Couzens, Brown was appointed to fill that unexpired term and so took office a few weeks early. Brown was chosen chairman of the 1938 Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, also chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Taxation of Governmental Securities and Salaries, where he served from 1938 to 1940. In the Senate, Brown was chairman of the Senate Committee on Claims and a member of the following committees of the Senate: Finance, Banking and Currency, Commerce, Manufacturers, and Special Committee to Investigate Duplication of Executive Agencies of the Government. He was selected to be a member of the powerful Senate Democratic Steering Committee. This committee decides and directs the legislative program of the United States Senate and selects, as vacancies occur, Senators for appointment to the regular standing committees of the Senate.
In 1941, Brown was placed on the Commerce Committee. Also in 1941, he became chairman of the Senate Committee on Claims. As chairman of the Special Senate Committee on Taxation of Governmental Securities and Salaries, Brown was the sponsor of the legislation that brought about reciprocal taxation of salaries. Before, state employees were exempt from federal income tax, and federal employees exempt from state income taxes. Because of the legislation which Brown sponsored, all (both state and federal) were now subject to both taxes. In other words, state employees must pay the federal income tax and federal employees must pay the state income tax in states which have such a tax. His bill also imposed the income tax on all federal judges who had theretofore been exempt. Another piece of legislation which he sponsored did away with tax-exempt government securities. The income from federal government bonds is no longer exempt from taxation. For a long time the senator had advocated passage of legislation to tax the income from state, county, and municipal bonds. His amendment to the Tax Bill of 1939 sought to accomplish this, but was defeated by a narrow margin.
Brown had sponsored and acted as senate floor manager for most of the legislation broadening the lending authority of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. The various corporations set up by the government to construct tank plants, gun plants, to build up rubber reserves, metal reserves, etc., were all created by legislation that Senator Brown sponsored in the Senate.
Brown also sponsored legislation continuing and broadening the Federal Housing Administration and was in charge of the price control legislation. He had been active in the work of the Senate Finance Committee and had been a vital factor in every tax bill written since 1936. He was in charge of the legislation authorizing issue of defense bonds and was insistent upon the inclusion in the Public Debt Bill of authority to sell bonds of small denominations, commonly known as baby bonds. This legislation was passed in March of 1941. His fight to enact a Price Control bill for the benefit of the American consumer had been highly commended by most informed authorities. Brown was chairman of the conference between the two houses of congress which put the bill in final shape.
Senator Brown was active in the "Aid to Small Business" bill. It came out of the Banking and Currency Committee, of which he was a member, and he was, as a member of the committee, active in support of the bill on the floor of the Senate. It provided for relief to small businesses through loans to assist them in getting work in the war program.
Senator Brown reported from the Banking and Currency Committee the bill entitled, "For the relief of dealers in certain articles or commodities rationed under authority of the United States." He also handled this bill on the Floor of the Senate and steered it to adoption by the Senate. This bill afforded relief to anyone dealing in rationed articles, but was primarily a measure of relief for the automobile and tire dealers who had been so adversely affected by the auto and tire curtailment.
Although he supported the Roosevelt Administration in its general policies, Senator Brown had by no means been a "yes" man in his service in Congress. Among the more important measures with which he had taken issue with the Administration was the following: the proposal to increase the membership of the Supreme Court; the first proposal to reorganize the Executive agencies of the Government; and the proposal to place the Civil Aeronautics Authority under the Commerce Department. Chief credit for defeat of the proposal to pack the Supreme Court was given to Senator Brown by Joseph Alsop and Turner Catledge, chief correspondents for the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times respectively.
The Senator's opposition to the Reorganization Bill was based on his belief that it gave legislative authority to the executive. He proposed a compromise which was rejected. It is commonly said that the rejection of this compromise caused the defeat of the bill. Subsequently, the bill was reintroduced with Senator Brown's amendment which left final authority in the congress, although giving the President primary authority. The bill as amended was then passed.
Brown ran for re-election in 1942, but was narrowly defeated by Homer Ferguson. He attributed his defeat to two things. First, his sponsorship of the OPA Act had made elements within business and industry extremely unhappy. Price fixing and rationing in particular had upset a lot of people, especially within the business community. Second, the small voter turnout in the 1942 election was below average. The nation was at war; the voter turnout was light, particularly among the working classes; the Democrats simply did not go to the polls.
After the election, President Roosevelt selected Brown as the new administrator of the Office of Price Administration. He worked in this position from January to October of 1943, and only then returned to Michigan to pick up the threads of his law practice and many business interests. In 1944, Brown was elected chairman of the board of the Detroit Edison Company, a position he held until his retirement in 1954.
In some ways, Brown's "retirement" years were his most rewarding. Long a proponent of a bridge uniting Michigan's two peninsulas, Brown, as chairman of the Mackinac Bridge Authority, worked long and hard to obtain the necessary financing for the Bridge. In 1954, in what he always considered his greatest achievement, Brown received from the Union Securities Corporation a check for 96 million dollars. Construction began soon thereafter; and on November 1, 1957, the Mackinac Bridge opened for traffic. Brown spent the remainder of his life in bridge related activities, business affairs, and historical pursuits.
Brown was married June 16, 1916, to Marion E. Walker of St. Ignace, a graduate of Michigan State College. They had seven children: Mariana F., Ruth M., James J., Barbara J., Patricia J., Prentiss M., Jr., and Paul W.
Senator Brown died on December 19, 1973.