Congress Has Been This Dysfunctional Before

Roundup: Media's Take
tags: Congress

David Stebenne is professor of history and law at Ohio State University.

The on-going public spectacle of a dysfunctional U.S. Congress isn’t entirely new. In the late 1930s and early 1940s Congress was a similarly divided and all-but-paralyzed branch of the federal government.

That earlier mess began in the spring of 1937, when strong pressure from Southern Committee chairs (in those days all conservative Democrats) produced a federal government budget that was once again in balance. The basic problem with that achievement was that it took place during the Great Depression, when the nation’s economy relied very heavily on federal government spending to keep moving forward. When the economy crashed in the summer and fall of 1937 as a direct result of too much federal budgetary austerity, the Roosevelt administration and the Democratic Party nationally were embarrassed. Voters, understandable angry about the emergence of a major recession – within – a – depression, punished the Democrats in the fall of 1938 by electing more Republicans to the U.S. House and Senate.

That made Congress even more dysfunctional, because most of the new Republicans were as fiscally conservative as the southern Democrats. Conservatives of all kinds were on the defensive in the late 1930s, which prompted right-wing members of Congress in both parties to start investigating radicals. The House Un-American Activities Committee was created then, whose actions ultimately made for a lot of hard feelings on both sides of the aisle. All of this divisiveness was made much worse by the growing disagreement over what to do about German and Japanese military aggression.

What followed was a roughly three-year period in which Congress struggled to accomplish much of anything as the Great Depression continued and national security problems mounted. That was the context in which filmmaker Frank Capra made his first major motion picture with a pessimistic mood: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Although the hero of the film, idealistic Senator Jefferson Smith, scores a moral victory at the end, much of the movie suggested that the U.S. Congress was a deeply flawed and even corrupt institution. “Mr. Smith” resonates with people today (my students at Ohio State who watched it this fall certainly thought so), and that signals the return of a sorry state of affairs on Capitol Hill.

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