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Stephen Mihm: Rewind two centuries for worst Congress

  • Bloomberg News
  • Published Tuesday, July 15, 2014, at 12 a.m.

By some accounts, this Congress may be the least productive ever, passing the fewest laws on record. President Obama is threatening to circumvent congressional gridlock by making policy via executive orders, taunting Republicans to “sue me” if they dare.

Here’s a bit of good news to lift the gloom: It turns out the 113th Congress isn’t as bad as Congress can get, according to an analysis of congressional “productivity” conducted by two political scientists, J. Tobin Grant of Southern Illinois University and Nathan Kelly of the University of Tennessee.

The duo measured both the sheer volume of legislation as well as the number of “major” legislative acts for all Congresses between 1789 and 2004. In this longer sweep of history, two particular sessions stand as the gold standard for a do-nothing Congress: the 19th and 20th, which ran from 1825 to 1828.

The scholars’ “Legislative Productivity Index” awards the 19th and 20th scores of 4.2 and 3.9, respectively. By contrast, the 104th Congress of 1995-96, which gave us the government shutdown, yielded a whopping 131.7 – a tidal wave of legislation by comparison. Even the 36th Congress, which ran on the eve of the Civil War, registered 38.6 on this index.

Why were two sessions in the 1820s so stunningly bad? In 1824, no one could have foreseen such an outcome. The preceding decade, the so-called “Era of Good Feelings,” had seen partisan conflict largely disappear. Indeed, by 1824 there was only one political party in existence: the Democratic-Republicans.

That was the calm before the storm. In the 1824 presidential election, four candidates ran under the Democratic-Republican banner: war hero Andrew Jackson, House Speaker Henry Clay, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and Treasury Secretary William Crawford.

On Election Day, no single candidate had won a majority of the popular vote, though Jackson was first with 41.4 percent. Adams trailed with 30.9; Clay and Crawford got the rest. No candidate won a majority of electoral votes, either, though Jackson secured a plurality.

This threw the election to the House of Representatives. Conveniently, Clay, who by this time was out of the race, was speaker. Clay abhorred Jackson, and when the House finally settled the election, Adams was declared the winner. Not long afterward, Adams seemed to repay the favor, appointing Clay to be secretary of state.

Jackson cried foul. In private, he called the House caucus “the great whore of Babylon.” Clay, he railed, was “the Judas of the West (who) has closed the contract and will receive the 30 pieces of silver.… His end will be the same.”

And then the fun began. When Adams declared in his first message to Congress that he hoped legislators would not be “palsied by the will of our constituents” in enacting his program, chaos ensued. Was Adams – who was “elected” by a backroom political deal – really telling Congress to ignore the will of the people to enact his program?

Worse, his ideas were politically naive: a national program of public works, including a national observatory. This last proposal seemed to suggest the president was more interested in astronomical science than politics.

In no time, Adams was at war with his vice president, much of his Cabinet, and allies and enemies alike in both the Senate (controlled by Jackson’s supporters) and the House (initially in the hands of his supporters). But the House, which had been run for years with guile and ruthless efficiency by Clay, was without an effective leader.

Adams, despondent over the death of his legislative program, tried to remain upbeat, exercising regularly (he liked to bathe naked in the Potomac) and sipping valerian root and quinine tea to calm his nerves. In the meantime, the 19th Congress did next to nothing, as the once unified Democratic-Republican Party disintegrated into squabbling factions.

In early 1826, a longtime enemy of Adams, Sen. John Randolph of Virginia, characterized the “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay as an alliance between a “puritan and a black-leg” – the latter a term for a swindler (or, alternatively, a virulent form of cattle disease).

Either way, Clay took offense and demanded a duel. The men met in Virginia, and Clay fired at Randolph, and missed, while Randolph ostentatiously refused to fire in Clay’s direction. Eventually the duelists parted amiably.

Things didn’t turn out so well in Congress. After the midterm election, the 20th Congress fell completely into the hands of Jackson’s supporters, making it, in the words of political historian Sean Wilentz, “a virtual committee for the defeat of the president.” Legislative activity ceased as both sides geared up for the rematch between Adams and Jackson in 1828.

By the spring of that year, political tensions had reached new levels. Visiting the White House, a Jackson partisan named Russell Jarvis overheard the president’s son declare that he “ought not to show his face in this house.”

Jarvis, likely encouraged by Jackson’s allies in Congress, challenged the younger Adams to a duel. When he failed to get a response, he lay in wait for Adams, who often visited Congress on behalf of his father. Accounts vary, but there is some agreement that Jarvis jumped the younger Adams in the central hall of the Capitol, trying to pull his nose (the ritual prelude to a duel).

This rumble in the Rotunda was a harbinger of the vicious electioneering that would attend the 1828 election, which included accusations that Adams acted as a pimp for the Russian czar, or that Jackson was a murderer, his dead mother a prostitute, and his wife an adulteress.

Jackson’s presidency would be equally stormy, though Congress did manage to get more done than it had during its nadir in the mid-1820s. And in the ensuring years, Congress never again matched its dismal record of the 19th and 20th sessions.

So, sure, things are bad. But if history is any guide, there’s no need to worry – unless, of course, House Speaker John Boehner pulls the president’s nose.

Stephen Mihm is an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia.

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