After graduating from the local public high school, Lee Warren attended the University of Montana for one year, then transferred to Stanford University in California, where he studied history and economics. He returned to Montana to study law. In 1936 he received both the B. A. from Stanford and the LL. B. from the University of Montana School of Law.
In November 1936, Metcalf was elected to represent Ravalli County in the Montana State House of Representatives. The following year he was appointed an assistant attorney general for the state. He rose to the position of first assistant attorney general and served in that position until 1941, when he resigned to enter private law practice in Hamilton, Montana. After the United States entered World War II, Metcalf enlisted in the army and was selected for officer candidate school. He was commissioned in 1943 and served as a staff officer with the Fifth Corps during the Normandy invasion. In subsequent campaigns, he served with the Sixtieth Infantry Regiment, Ninth Infantry Division, First Army. As Allied troops entered Germany, he helped to organize the occupational police and civilian court systems. After the German surrender, he supervised housing and repatriation of displaced persons, helped to draft the ordinance for the first free local elections in Germany, and supervised elections in Bavaria. He was discharged in April 1946 with the rank of first lieutenant. After returning to Montana, Metcalf won a nonpartisan election in 1946 to a six-year term as an associate justice of the Montana Supreme Court.
Metcalf served in the House for eight years, holding membership in the Education and Labor Committee and the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee during most of that period. In his last term, he won a seat on the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. During the 1950's the congressional seniority system placed conservative southern Democrats in many of the key leadership positions in the House. In 1960, Metcalf ran for the Senate and won the seat by a narrow margin despite a Republican victory in the Montana presidential race.
Metcalf brought his interests in conservation of natural resources, education, and consumer protection to the Senate. His committee assignments included Interior and Insular Affairs, Public Works, Government Operations, and Energy and Natural Resources. In 1962 he introduced a bill that he termed "Save Our Streams" to protect recreational resources from damage caused by interstate highways. He withdrew the bill after the Federal Highway Administration incorporated its principles into its regulations. He also sponsored the Senate version of the Wilderness Act to protect natural areas from exploitation. In 1965 he achieved a major goal of his political career with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, providing federal financial aid to education. As a consumer advocate, Metcalf continued to focus public attention on the privileges accorded to privately owned utilities. In his 1967 book Overcharge, coauthored by Vic Reinemer, he compared the electric rates of investor-owned utilities with those charged by publicly owned ones and concluded that customers of the private companies paid an average of $60 per year in excess charges. His proposals for tighter supervision failed to pass, however. Perhaps as a result of his service in the House, where he had participated in two major revolts against the established ways of the institution, Metcalf was convinced that organizational reform was the only way to make Congress more responsive to the public interest. In 1965 he was appointed to the newly established Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, which made a number of recommendations for reform and laid the groundwork for the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, the first serious reform of congressional organization and procedures since 1946. The 1970 law established the Joint Committee on Congressional Operations, which Metcalf cochaired for the remainder of his Senate career. A legislative supporter of Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Metcalf was elected acting president pro tempore of the Senate in 1963. In 1970 he cast the only Senate vote against Nixon's omnibus crime bill, asserting that it would take away the basic rights of individuals. Metcalf died in Helena, Montana, where he had made his home.
In 1952, Metcalf was elected as a Democrat to the United States House of Representatives from Montana's First District, composed of the mountainous western third of the state.
A bold and energetic congressman, Metcalf established a record during his four terms in the House as a vociferous opponent of private power companies, a supporter of federal aid to education, and an ardent conservationist. He vigorously crusaded for the protection of public lands from private exploitation and the preservation of wildlife habitats.
As a liberal Democrat, Metcalf frequently opposed the leadership of his own party as well as the Republican Eisenhower administration. In 1957 he joined with other liberals to found the Democratic Study Group, which advocated policy positions rejected by the party leadership, and participated in an unsuccessful attempt to reduce the power of the conservative chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. Two years later he participated in another unsuccessful reform movement this time to make it more difficult for the conservative Rules Committee to block liberal legislation.
As one of the most consistently liberal members of the Senate, he frequently opposed the legislative proposals of Republican president Richard M. Nixon.
Quotes from others about the person
“Washington radio commentator Joseph McCaffrey likened Metcalf to a bulldog: "Once he digs his teeth into an issue he stays with it. The tougher it is, the more tenacious he becomes. "”
On August 20, 1938, Lee Warren married Donna Albertine Hoover of Wallace, Idaho. They had one foster son.