50 Years Ago, Americans Fired Their Dysfunctional Congress

tags: Congress, Obama

Julian E. Zelizer is a political historian at Princeton University and a fellow at New America. He is the author of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society.

It’s almost impossible to find anyone who is optimistic about Congress. The good news is that this is not the first time we've despaired over Congressional dysfunction. In fact, in the years leading up to one of the biggest outbursts of legislative productivity—the passage of the Great Society in 1965 and 1966—there was a huge chorus of critics who decried the inaction of Congress. Revisiting that history can teach us about how to navigate the present political morass.

We just finished one of the least productive sessions in American history. Partisan gridlock, incivility, and extremism have paralyzed Capitol Hill. There are not many observers who believe that President Obama’s current policy agenda stands much of a chance of passing through a broken Congress.  

Whereas Obama has been stymied by congressional Republicans who controlled the House and capitalized on minority power in the Senate, Kennedy squared off against a coalition of southern Democratic committee chairmen and Republicans. Since the 1937 backlash against Franklin Roosevelt, this conservative coalition had been the principle roadblock to liberal reform. Southerners, elected to safe districts, thrived in a committee system based on seniority.

The longer a person stayed in office, the more power they obtained. Mississippi Senator James Eastland, an ardent racist, chaired a subcommittee responsible for civil rights. He liked to joke that he had special pockets made in his pants just to carry around all the bills he wouldn’t let come up for a vote. In the Senate, southerners killed bills through the filibuster, which, according to journalist William White, made the upper chamber “the South’s unending revenge upon the North for Gettysburg.”

By the time that Kennedy was elected president in 1960, liberals had lost faith in the existing Congress. Democrat Senator Joseph Clark called his colleagues the “Sapless Branch” of government and wrote that the conservative coalition was the “antithesis of democracy….” Soon after Kennedy’s election, House Rules Committee Chairman Howard Smith, who had once pretended there was a fire on his barn in Virginia just to prevent a vote on a civil rights bill, told reporters that he would “exercise whatever weapons I can lay my hands on” to stop the new president....

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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