The History and Lessons of Congressional Crises

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: U.S. Congress




With fights over cloture, changes to the filibuster rules and government shutdowns, it’s been an interesting year in the House and the Senate. What does the past suggest about how Congress responds to breaks in its norms? And what can the current Congress learn from its history?

Gregory P. Downs, an associate professor of history at the City University of New York, suggested this discussion.

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Gregory P. Downs is an associate professor at the City College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the author of “Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908.” He is also the author of the short-story collection “Spit Baths.”

Rules Remembered and Forgotten

History may not repeat itself, but sometimes the echoes sound awfully familiar. One hundred and twenty three years ago, a man named Reed broke the filibuster in Congress’s slowest branch while his outraged opponents denounced him as a revolutionary. Despite these surface similarities, there are plenty of reasons to separate past from present. In 1890, the recalcitrant house was in the fact the House, not the Senate; the leader was the sarcastic and imposing Thomas Reed, not the savvy and slender Harry Reid; the issue was contested elections not federal appointments; and the problem was the disappearing quorum, not cloture votes....

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Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College, is the author of the forthcoming "To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party."

Lessons From the First Shutdown

Today’s battle over funding the government echoes one that erupted in the wake of the Civil War. In 1879, ex-Confederates in Congress tried to replace the Union’s hard-won nationalism with their discredited philosophy of state’s rights. They refused to fund the government until Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes caved to their demands. 

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John Milton Cooper Jr. is the E. Gordon Fox professor of American institutions emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of "Woodrow Wilson: A Biography."

Wilson, the Senate and Cloture

On March 4, 1917, 11 anti-war senators led by Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin and George W. Norris of Nebraska blocked a vote on a bill, overwhelmingly passed in the House, to arm American merchant ships against German submarine attacks. Their filibuster was the equivalent to running out the clock in sports: they consumed the time remaining until the Congress expired that day under its pre-Twentieth Amendment deadline. In a prepared statement, President Woodrow Wilson stingingly denounced the senators: “A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.”

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Dorian T. Warren is an associate professor of political science and public affairs at Columbia University and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Street Protests Can Foil Congress

Americans often imagine our national legislature — Congress — as the place where the big issues of the day are tackled through compromise, log-rolling and political wheeling-and-dealing. Yet the 113th Congress is poised to go down as the least productive in the post-World War II era. Dysfunction and obstruction is one major reason Congress currently has the lowest approval rating on record. Only the Newt Gingrich-led “Contract with America” Congress, which took power in 1995 and faced off against President Bill Clinton, comes close. As many scholars have noted, only fights over slavery and the post-Reconstruction Congresses have been as polarizing as our contemporary body.

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