Your Government Inaction: The Do-Nothing Congress of 50 Years Ago

Titular leaders of Congress: on the left, the Democrats’ McCormack (top) and Mansfield; on the right, the G.O.P.’s Halleck and Dirksen. 1963 © SEPS

Read enough history and you’ll find it hard to escape a recurring sense of déjà vu: the feeling that you’ve previously experienced the present moment.

We had one of those déjà-vu moments when we read in a recent Gallup poll that the public’s approval rating of Congress had struck a historic low point. More than 80 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job. This is no sudden unpopularity, either. In five of the past six years, the approval rating has remained below 20 percent.

The reason for dissatisfaction is not hard to find. The House and Senate have all but shut down because legislators have chosen not to act rather than compromise with their political opponents. Today’s 113th Congress looks like it will surpass the inactivity of the 112th, which passed the fewest bills of any Congress in the past 72 years.

This legislative stagnation bears a discouraging similarity to what was described 50 years ago by the Post’s political reporter, Stewart Alsop. In “The Failure of Congress,” Alsop reported, “The Congress of the United States is in deep trouble … more than ever before, the public attitude toward Congress is a mixture of indifference, amusement, and contempt. … The reputation of Congress is … ‘lower than a snake’s belly.’”

Alsop stated that the 88th Congress of 1963 had failed because it wouldn’t move beyond a political impasse. “Never before in history,” he wrote, “has Congress talked so long to accomplish so little. … Appropriations are supposed to be approved by the end of July each year, to provide money for the next fiscal year. As of late fall, the State, Justice and Commerce departments are still living hand-to-mouth, because Congress has never got round to voting funds for them.”

What made the stalemate of the 88th Congress so unusual was that it wasn’t caused by the usual war between Republicans and Democrats. The Republicans were too few in number to mount any serious opposition; their 33 senators were easily outvoted by the 67 Democrats.

No, the Congressional impasse of 50 years ago was the product of a split between factions within the Democratic party. One faction Alsop called the “generally liberal Presidential party.” The other was “the generally conservative Party of the Congressional Establishment” comprised of Southern Democrats and senior Republicans.

“On major issues—if the issue can be brought to a vote—the Presidential Party usually has the edge,” wrote Alsop. “But the machinery of Congress is controlled by the Establishment Party. So bills the Establishment Party does not like either do not come to a vote at all, or come to a vote after endless delays and in emasculated form.”

Remarkably, Alsop said, Southern legislators within the Establishment dominated Congress even though they represented less than 17 percent of the voting population.

This minority could steer the course in Congress because they knew how to gather and wield power—something their opponents never mastered. “The damn liberals,” Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota sputtered, “they just don’t understand power. All they understand is sentiment.” Humphrey, a leading liberal himself, added, “After all politics is just the way you spell power, but the liberals think power is sinful.” Another liberal senator agreed with Humphrey, telling Alsop, “Power is like sex. If you think it’s sinful, you don’t enjoy it and you’re not much good at it.”

The chief cause of the 1963 impasse, according to Alsop, was President Kennedy’s proposed civil rights legislation, which sought to end segregation in schools and businesses as well as the suppression of black voters. The Establishment’s strategy was to delay the civil rights bill, and anything else along with it, Alsop said, though he could find no Southern congressman who’d admit it on record.

Yet, in the end, Congress passed the civil rights bill before its adjournment in 1964, though not without considerable maneuvering and pressure from President Johnson.

Criticizing Congress is a fine, old American tradition. You can find the Post expressing disapproval of its inaction for nearly as long as it has been in print. An editorial from March 9, 1822, for example, marveled at how little had been accomplished by the 17th Congress. It had sat for three months, it said, listening to committees, issuing reports, requesting more committees, and proposing more laws. The paperwork had piled up in Washington until the tables were groaning under the weight. And after all this work had excited the nation’s hopes for legislative action, “what has been the result? Procrastination. Debate. … New committees. New Reports. New speeches … and, finally, indefinite postponements.”

It seems that Americans have long been patient with their Congress, but is that patience endless? Does the triumph of politics over governance ultimately corrode America’s faith in their government? Alsop thought so. “When the citizens of a democracy begin to hold their legislature in contempt,” he wrote, “democracy is itself in danger.”