The Do-Nothing Congress of 1880 as Described at the Time

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Does this matter-of-fact assessment of its failure to accomplish anything ring true for today's legislature, too?

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New York Public Library/Wikimedia Commons

In 1880, Rutherford Hayes spent his last year in the White House. James Garfield won the presidential election.The first electric street lights were installed in Wabash, Indiana. And on June 20, 1880, The Republic, "a weekly journal of politics and society," published an item pegged to the end of a Congressional session that serves as a useful reminder that legislative inaction and successful efforts to block bills have long been characteristic of the system that we inherited -- a system that has served us rather well in the decades since 1880, all things considered.

It's interesting to absorb certain details: the lengthy break between sessions, the uncertainty about whether everyone would be alive when the Congress next convened, and the absenteeism especially. The item was unbylined, and I've stuck a couple referential links in the text:

The final adjournment of the second session of the Forty-fifth Congress on Wednesday was an anti-climax -- dull and uninteresting. The appropriations had been agreed to the day before. The obstructionists were determined that no business should be done. Bills could neither be passed by unanimous consent nor under suspension of the rules. Dilatory motions and frequent roll calls were in order, and the Speaker had to interrupt the clerks in their monotonous calls in order to get an opportunity to declare, in a few words, that the session had come to a close.

There was the usual scene of farewells, handshakings and good wishes among the Members, and they separated for their homes, and Washington will see their faces no more until December. I join in the general expression of good wishes, and whether the Members spend their recess among the lakes of Maine, the rivers of Florida, the parks and canons of the Rocky Mountains, or watch from our Occidental shores the summer suns sink into the Pacific, I hope that their summer may be pleasantly passed, and the winter find them here again alive and well.
_________

The session has been a very conservative one. The majority have attempted very little political or financial legislation, and when they did attempt any the minority usually managed to obstruct, delay and defeat it. The only political bill that slipped through was on the last night of the session, returned with the President's veto. The tone of the session has been quiet; the appropriations nearly approximate to the estimates of the departments; no attempt has been made to reorganize the army, or to remodel the navy. Two months were wasted on the new rules, which have failed to give satisfaction. The Congress has not been an industrious one. Absenteeism has been conspicuous -- more so than in any late Congress. This has been a drawback to the democrats. Their majority was so small that a few vacant seats placed them in the power of their opponents.

This was true in the extra session, and has been true of this. The Election Committee have been struggling over the WASHBURNE-DONNELLY matter, and their work has been a failure. The Ways and Means Committee were in a wrangle over the tariff and at odds with their party in the House. They have failed to do anything, as perhaps was the Speaker's intention. At all events the democrats in the House are decidedly out with the Speaker and his committees. Mr. RANDALL takes too much of the responsibility of legislation upon himself, and consequently his somewhat dictatorial interference is resented. If the new House should have a Democratic majority Mr. RANDALL could not be reelected, except by a very general change of the personnel of the democratic side. The Appropriations Committee have had an easier time than usual.

They have not tried many innovations; their great fight against the Post Office department on the Star service was a Waterloo defeat. The only time that committee has been defeated when they were a unit, as in this case. The Commerce Committee washed out the Speaker and his opposition to the river and harbor bill. The most noticeable debate was on the bill to distribute the Geneva award, and was signalized by Mr. BLAINE's crushing defeat of the "great lawyers of the Senate." Private business has been woefully obstructed and neglected, and on the whole the sins of omission are greater than those of commission. The most that can be said is that the session has passed the appropriations and done very little else.

I don't think it can be said of the present Congress that "the sins of omission are greater than those of commission."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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