Based on Maxwell Anderson’s story, a new Congressman comes to Washington to expose the crooks who are running the government.
On a train Button Gwinett Brown (Lee Tracy) reads a letter from his friend Carl Tilden at the Justice Department, asking the new Congressman to see him as soon as he arrives in Washington. A porter brings in a telegram for Brown from Kelleher directing him to get in touch with him. Brown goes to a mirror and tells Kelleher that he will not take orders from him or anyone else. He is going to kick him out with the crooks. The porter Clarence (Clarence Muse) is arguing with another porter who says he is a liar. Brown invites them into his compartment. The porter asks if Brown is a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and if he has a letter from him, and if that letter is worth $50,000. Brown says they are all true. The porter believes Brown but not Clarence until he sees the letter. Clarence asks Brown if he can show him the letter, and Brown says go ahead. Clarence opens a suitcase and gets the letter. They look at it, and the wind blows it out of his hand. He and Brown chase the letter in the railroad car, and it blows into a room.
In the room Alice Wylie (Constance Cummings) picks up the letter, closes the door, and rips up the letter. She hears a knock, and Brown asks if a letter came into her room. She puts on a robe and lets him in. He says it is priceless and asks where it is. He says there are only three, and she says two. He sees the pieces on the floor and starts picking them up. She helps him and asks who Button Gwinett is. He says it is the most valuable thing he owns. She reads a piece and puts it in her pants. Brown assumes he got them all and leaves. Her aunt comes in and asks what they were doing. Alice says he was looking for a button.
In Washington DC five men are playing poker. Ambassador Conti (Clay Clement) asks Edward T. Norton (Alan Dinehart) if an ambassador is supposed to know about his own country. Norton asks Senator Wylie (Walter Connolly) what he thinks. Wylie says if there were not so many mines down there operated by American capital, he would be more open-minded. Norton says he agrees with the Senator. Norton says the US Marines should not be acting as private police for the American “dollar-grabbers” in South America. Wylie suggests a drink. Norton goes to the bar, and Conti asks Norton why he agreed with Wylie. Norton says that he has to be careful with Wylie, but he will sail along. A servant tells Norton that Senator Kelleher wants to see him. Norton leaves as Wylie wins the hand and happily collects the chips.
Senator John Kelleher (Frank Sheridan) tells Norton that the new Congressman will be there in the morning. Norton hopes he will be better than the last one. Norton warns Kelleher they need a different type of man in Washington. Kelleher says he is all front and no back and that his family dates back to the Revolution. Norton asks about his political record, and Kelleher says this is his first office since being a cheerleader in college. Norton tells him to start his education with the Digger bill. Carl Tilden breaks his way in, and Norton says goodnight to Kelleher, who leaves. Norton tells Tilden not to enter his house without a search warrant. Tilden says he is going to resign as head of the Prohibition Department. Tilden says Norton only needs to phone someone to take his place. Norton says they can not let him go. Tilden says he is quitting. Norton tells him he will go to federal prison. Tilden says he would go happily if he could take Norton with him; but Norton says he can’t. Tilden agrees they can get him but not Norton. Tilden asks for paper to write a note, not his resignation. Norton opens a drawer with paper and a pistol, and then he walks out and tells his servant to send flowers to Wylie’s granddaughter on the train. Tilden writes.
Senator Wylie wins another pot of chips. Tilden puts his letter in an envelope and tells the servant he left three cents for a stamp. By the elevator Tilden mails the letter. A shot is heard, and the elevator operator opens the door and sees his body on the floor.
At the train station a senator is photographed. Clarence asks Brown if he wants his picture taken. Women with “No saloon” banners appear. Mr. Willis (Arthur Hoyt) greets Brown and tells him he is to be his secretary. He brought him his mail from the House office and gives him a telegram for Brown that he opened. Brown reads the message from Kelleher about H. R. 417 and that Willis will explain. Brown asks about the bill, and Willis says it is an appropriation for a monument in honor of General Digger’s expedition. Brown asks who he is, and Willis says he does not know. Willis says the fort was where General Digger made his last stand. Brown tells Willis that he can’t use him because Kelleher sent him.
Brown sends Clarence to the hotel with the bags, and he walks to the capital. Brown goes to the Bonus camp and sees his army buddy, Beef Brannigan (Arthur Vinton). They are happy to see each other. Beef says he is collecting an I.O.U. from the government. Brown says he is a Congressman and has business. Beef says he could not peel potatoes in his outfit. Beef takes him for a drink and shows him the Bonus camp. Beef takes him into his tent and says he is looking for a job.
In Senator’s Wylie office his secretary Martin asks him if Tilden killed himself because of domestic troubles and asks who will replace him. Wylie suggests Williams and says he going on the floor. Martin calls Norton and says Williams is okay.
Beef says Norton is a big-shot in Washington and sends them a truck-load of food every day. Brown says he has to see Tilden. Beef says he has to meet the boys. Beef calls the men to gather around and introduces Congressman Brown who is one of them. Brown says they enlisted or were drafted into the war. He says the danger is in Washington with bribery and crookedness. He asks how many voted and how many sold their votes. Brown says he was elected by bought votes. He says the constitution gave them government by petition, not by intimidation. A soldier and a woman disagree with him. Brown says he does not want their votes. He says his constituents are the crooks who put him in office, and he is going to double-cross them the way they have been double-crossing the people. He has been talking to the people who come to Washington to get something. He says the nation is in great trouble. He says most in Congress are honest, but they are handicapped by a hidden government which has turned the constitution into a bill of sale. He says the government needs their support. He says they are like panhandlers begging for a hand-out. He urges them to help their government. Go home and tell people and drive them to the polls. He asks them to become servicemen.
Brown at his hotel says he has a reservation. The hotel manager tells him his room number and gives him business cards. The manager says he has a nephew who wants to be page-boy in Congress. Brown asks if he can appoint a page-boy and learns he can. Brown sees Alice dancing with Norton and asks who she is. He learns she is Senator Wylie’s granddaughter. Brown gives her one of his cards. She introduces Brown to her friend Norton. Brown tells her he is missing an important piece of the letter. She says she got off at Baltimore. She says she has the piece and held out on him. He asks for it. She writes her name and phone number on the card and gives it back to Brown.
Clarence lets Brown into his room. Clarence answers the phone and says Kelleher is coming up and that Brown needs a secretary. A newspaperman wants to interview him. Senator Kelleher comes in and shakes Brown’s hand. Kelleher tells Brown he should not have put out Willis. Brown explains why he did not want him and thanks Kelleher for helping him get elected. He says Kelleher has been milking their state. Brown says he joined Kelleher because of what he gets, but he has to split it with someone in Washington. He asks who it is and says he will not vote for the Digger bill. Kelleher is perturbed and warns him he will not last long. Brown says he will kick him out, and that is why he came to Washington. Brown tells him that is all and opens the door for him. Kelleher asks if that is all and leaves. Brown tells Clarence he is scared. He opens and reads the letter from Tilden which tells about the invisible government that is wrecking the nation. Norton is the leader of the gang. Brown asks for a newspaper and sees the headline that Tilden committed suicide.
Brown is working in the Library of Congress, and Alice comes in and asks if he is digging for dirt. Brown says he is digging for Digger. She asks who he is. Brown says he drove Indians from their own land, and Congress wants to appropriate two million dollars for that. She tells him not to read the legislation.
Brown shows her the exhibit of the Declaration of Independence and shows her Gwinett’s signature. He is glad he met her. He says he does not want to be re-elected. He talks about the commitment the founders made at great risk. He says now the crooks have taken over the government, and that is why he will vote against the Digger bill. People listened and applaud.
Brown and Alice go to his office, and he answers the phone about why they changed to paper towels. They hear a buzzer, and she says it is a role call in the House. He asks if he should be there. She says he is too busy. He answers the phone and is asked what committee he wants. He is offered Coins, Weights, and Measures. She answers the phone and says Brown is not there. She says he needs a good secretary, and she will do it. She sits down and calls a Congressman to ask if Appropriations, Interstate Commerce, or Foreign Affairs are open. She says Senator Wylie will speak to him about a major committee appointment.
Brown meets Alice at a party and asks when they eat. He asks what her salary is. She says she owes him $50,000 to work off. She says this is the real government that makes things happen. She says he has to cultivate them, but he only wants to cultivate her. Senator Wylie says Brown got into trouble at the Bonus camp. Brown says it was because he told the truth, and a little truth in Washington is dangerous. Wylie asks what he likes about Washington, and Brown tells him what he does not like. They are expected to take orders. Wylie says no, they gather by indirection what course is preferable. Brown says everyone has an ax to grind, and he brought one with him but not to grind it. Alice says he is a one-man vigilante committee who came to destroy the scribes and Pharisees. Brown asks to meet Norton, and Wylie introduces him as a Tartar. Brown tells Norton that he has a message from his friend Tilden, who promised to show him the ropes and kept his word. Brown reads to Norton from his letter. Brown won’t let Norton see the letter. He reads about a large shipment of alcohol that will give Norton $20 million and a large forest with control of a port and a railway system. To do so he may start a revolution and have Marines sent down to “protect American citizens.” Norton calls it childish and says Brown is naïve. Norton asks about Brown, who says he is an ex-serviceman looking for a fight, and he will not commit suicide.
At dinner Wylie asks if Brown is writing a speech. He advises him not to say anything but say it with great conviction. Alice joins them and orders a salad. She asks Brown to listen to her and advises him not to make enemies. Wylie says Brown made Kelleher see red. She says he may get Brown out of Congress. Wylie explains his opponent could asks for a recount; they could stuff the ballot box, and he would be out. Brown asks Wylie to listen to his speech this afternoon. Wylie and Alice will be there. Brown suspects she is sore at him, but he thinks she is marvelous. He reads them his opening, quoting Lincoln.
In the House of Representatives a man quotes Lincoln and is applauded. Alice asks Brown if he is nervous and advises him to stick to generalities. The speaker says bills will be passed without votes when read unless an objection is heard. When they read H.R. 417, Brown gets up and speaks about General Digger who stole land from Indians. He says the bill is a plan to loot the Treasury of $2 million. He says it is important. They vote for each other’s bills. He says Tilden committed suicide, and he asks who will be appointed to his position. He says he will back their man if they vote against 417. Brown says he wants to discuss every bill; but he is called out of order and is escorted out by the sergeant-at-arms. The Congressmen chant “Down with General Digger.”
Alice reads the newspaper article about the defeat of the Digger bill to Brown. She says he made an ass out of himself. He won’t let her influence him. She says he should save himself for the big bills. She says Kelleher fixing the recount did him a favor. He says he was playing to her. She says Wylie could get him an appointment. He does not want an appointment. He says Norton is the biggest crook, and she says he could buy and sell him. He says for her it is all a big merry-go-round. He says she is soft, silly, and useless. She slaps him and runs out. Wylie asks Brown how he is and says he wants to talk to him. Brown says he is the laughing talk. Wylie says he showed he was a fighter. When he learns strategy, he will be a world beater. Brown says Kelleher has got him counted out. Wylie says he could see Norton who could influence Kelleher. Brown objects to Norton controlling Kelleher. Brown says for every Congressman there are ten parasites clinging to him. They should direct criticism to Norton and expose him. Wylie says Norton is his friend. Brown says that Norton bought Wylie, but he did not know it. He lets him win money at poker. Norton lays down winning hands. Wylie gets angry and tells Brown to get out of his house.
Brown visits the Lincoln Memorial at night. In the Bonus camp Beef tells his group that he trusts them to listen to Brown. Before they go home, they will listen to Brown, who asks if they heard of the Boston Tea Party.
The next day Norton gets into his limousine with Conti. At a club Conti tells Norton they cannot depend on Wylie. A waiter hears them and calls Brown. In an elevator Norton says he is doing his duty.
Wylie wins a hand at poker as Norton throws down his hand. Wylie looks at Norton’s cards and sees three aces.
Norton is talking with Alice and asks her to be his queen. She says he is not being romantic. Norton says he is a practical man. Wylie comes in and says he never loses because of his kind friends. Norton says he asked Alice to be his wife. She says she is engaged to her father. Wylie wants to talk with Norton, and she steps out. Wylie tells Norton he would rather be dead than give Alice to Norton, who says he is a sap and a fool. Wylie admits it but says his eyes are open now. He says Tilden knew. Norton says he was paid for sponsoring Tilden’s appointment and for many other things. Norton asks if he wants to commit political suicide. Wylie says he will show up Norton, who says it will be the last thing he ever does and leaves.
Wylie’s secretary Martin tells the Senator that Norton is calling. Wylie says he does not care to talk to him. Wylie is told he should see Norton before his next meeting; but Wylie says the next time he sees Norton he will be in a federal prison. Martin puts something in a cup and offers Wylie his mineral water. Then he puts the crushed cup in his pocket. Wylie asks Martin to contact the press and says every voter will be interested in what he is going to say. Wylie feels bad and collapses.
At the Wylie funeral an honor guard fires rifles. Norton is consoling Alice and offers to take her home. She asks for a drive along the river. In the car Norton says he was a great American. Norton asks her to count on him and believe in him. He says he can do anything, and he has many plans. He says there is an opportunity for a strong man like Mussolini or Stalin, a man who could take the law into his own hands when necessary. The car stops, and the driver tells Norton to get out. Brown with a group of men tells Norton that he is under arrest. Brown and Alice get in the car.
At the Bonus camp Brown says that Martin there murdered Wylie at the order of Norton. Sending the Marines was bigger murders. Brown says Al Capone was only a hoodlum compared to Norton. He says they have evidence that he financed newspapers, purchased lobbies, and controlled political machines. He is going to get the same break that Tilden got. The men leave the tent, and Norton offers Brown a million dollars. Brown says they are taking Martin to the police. Brown says they are going to have law and order again. The people will not stop until they get back their United States. He opens a drawer and shows Norton paper and his gun that Tilden used. He says Norton might want to use it, and he goes out. Brown and Alice hear a shot from the tent. She asks Brown to put his arm around her, and he does so.
This political drama from the year before FDR became president portrays the depth of the Depression with the frustrated veterans camping in Washington. A radical new Congressman goes against all the political instincts of trying to get re-elected in order to remove those who are bribing the politicians and corrupting the government.