Tag Archives: Congress

America’s Best Legislators

Americans seem obsessed with the idea… of ideologically pure lawmakers.  Officials elected to go to Washington and fight the very process of legislating for the sake of political purity that has never existed.  The 112th Congress has achieved a level of infamy not seen since the indolence of the 80th in 1947.  Legislating is a messy process built upon compromise (often compared to sausage making.)  Successful legislators find the balance between what Americans need and what they will tolerate.  Compare our current crop, Boehner, Cantor, Reid, Kyl– with our very best:

 

5.  Tip O’Neill– A Liberal Democrat able to survive the Reagan Revolution, O’Neill was a master deal-maker.  Reagan and O’Neill were at odds over every major issue of the day, but they were able to keep the government running throughout the 1980’s.  Reagan’s budgets included the social spending the Democrats demanded and O’Neill secured the defense increases Republicans pressed heavily for.  The two men forged an unlikely friendship amidst their budgetary battles.

Tipper and the Gipper

 

4.  James Madison– It is easy to forget Madison’s career as a legislator, being the Father of the Constitution and all.  Madison was the consummate pragmatist, willing to compromise when he believed the measure would build an enduring alliance.  His coalition building forced the original states to give up western claims allowing the territories to form.  He guided the Bill of Rights through the first Congress and built the foundation for the judiciary.  Madison distinguished himself despite life long ill-health and jealous rivals like Patrick Henry (who did all he could to deny Madison a seat in the first Congress.)

3.  Sam Rayburn– The picture of longevity and ethics, Rayburn served in the House from 1913-1961 and never once accepted government money for personal expenses.  Rayburn fought for programs he believed in, regardless of their party of origin.  He battled for the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt as well as the federal highway projects of Eisenhower.  Rayburn set a powerful example for a generation of lawmakers (see #2.)

Johnson, Truman, Garner, Rayburn enjoy a laugh

 

2. Lyndon B. Johnson– There has never been an arm-twister like LBJ.  Many historians consider him the most effective Majority Leader in the history of the Senate.  Central to his ability was intelligence; Johnson would learn as much as he could about the Senator(s) who needed persuading.  With information in hand, he proceeded with the “Johnson treatment” and few could resist.   LBJ brought these skills to the oval office, first passing the Kennedy agenda (including the Civil Rights Act of 1964) in just under 100 days.  Later, he pushed the Great Societythrough a reluctant Congress.

“I will have your support.”

 

1.  Henry Clay– Andrew Jackson’s name is given to the era, but Clay was the essential American political leader.  Clay transformed Speaker of the House from  a ceremonial to  a political position.  He used his influence to push his American System  that stabilized the country after the War of 1812.  Clay brokered  the Missouri Compromise which saved the Republic from collapse in 1820.  The Nullification Crisis of 1831 was averted through Clay’s efforts.  Clay again forestalled disunion in 1850 through another compromise.  Far from perpetuating slavery, Clay’s efforts allowed essential social movements and political debate to occur.  Had the Republic collapsed during his lifetime, the changes brought on by the Civil War might never have happened.

Essential American

 

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The Speaker has Arrived

Henry Clay was first elected Speaker of the House… on November 4, 1811.  America was on the verge of war with Britain and the new Speaker(and freshman House member) immediately set the agenda.  No previous Speaker had used the gavel in such a way.  Henry Clay was not only pushing his country into war, he was revolutionizing policy making in the People’s House:

Henry Clay of Kentucky

“What are we to gain by war, has been emphatically asked?  In reply, he would ask, what are we not to lose by peace?—commerce, character, a nation’s best treasure, honor!  Let those who contend for this humiliating doctrine, read its refutation in the history of the very man against whose insatiable thirst of dominion we are warned.  Let us come home to our own history. It was not by submission that our fathers achieved our independence.”

Clay’s silky smooth delivery in a deep baritone that commanded attention… made  floor debates his stage.  But, the Speaker’s conference room was where Clay was able to hammer out deals to guide difficult policies through the House.  The War of 1812 was his first great accomplishment.  Ever the gambler, Clay felt the struggle was worth the risk:

“But it is said that we are not prepared for war, and ought therefore not to declare it. This is an idle objection, which can have weight with the timid and pusillanimous only. The fact is otherwise. Our preparations are adequate to every essential object. Do we apprehend danger to ourselves? From what quarter will it assail us? From England, and by invasion? The idea is too absurd to merit a moment’s consideration.” –Henry Clay, 1811

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Would He Belong?

Would Dwight D. Eisenhower be welcomed in today’s Republican party?… Today’s GOP- dominated by fiscal Conservatives like the so-called “freedom caucus;”  scrawny descendants of  Do-Nothings of the 80th Congress   who obstruct, protest, and bloviate over the slightest Federal spending.  The insistence on labeling government programs as “entitlements” will give these rank amateurs undue influence in policy making.  Programs like Social Security, GI Bill, unemployment insurance, the interstate system, Civil Rights and the National Parks are all seen as drains on our government and in need of outsourcing.

Let’s build interstates

Eisenhower oversaw the expansion of all these “drains” and expanded so-called entitlements ….  and had a very different view of governing:

In all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. In all those things which deal with people’s money, or their economy, or their form of government, be conservative.”

 

Ike’s domestic policy was bold and equitable in the face of … the traditions of his party.  Sadly, such a leader would be expelled by today’s Republicans–  no longer the party of Lincoln. 

 

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On Experimentation

Friends and rivals

Friends and rivals

The American experience has always been built on experimentation… Our very existence doubted by most of the world, the optimism of Thomas Jefferson became essential to the survival of our republican experiment.

 

As the election of 1796 loomed… the friendship between Jefferson and John Adams waned.  Jefferson reminded his friend of their experiment:

picture-2

“I am aware of the objection to this, that the office becoming more important may bring on serious discord in elections. In our country I think it will be long first; not within our day; and we may safely trust to the wisdom of our successors the remedies of the evil to arise in theirs. Both experiments however are now fairly committed, and the result will be seen. Never was a finer canvas presented to work on than our countrymen…. This I hope will be the age of experiments in government, and that their basis will be founded on principles of honesty, not of mere force….If ever the morals of a people could be made the basis of their own government, it is our case.”   Jefferson to Adams, February 28 1796

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History Wishes for the New Year

Things only a historian could wish for….

  • Paul Ryan becomes the next Henry Clay- reestablishing the power of Congress against an Imperial Presidency
  • Legitimate scholarship on the Obama Presidency
  • Completion of the Eisenhower Memorial on the National Mall- followed by greater appreciation of his Presidency
  • Congress take a leading role in preserving historical sites around the country
  • Stop destroying Confederate monuments
  • Stop flying the Confederate flag on government property
  • Stop the indiscriminate renaming of buildings and institutions- more debate, less emotion please
  • Judge historical figures in the context of THEIR time, not ours
  • A multi-volume biography of James Madison
  • More research, scholarship, and debate- fewer musicals
  • End all foolish talk of secession- 715,000 Americans died destroying that fallacy
  • A Civil War movie from the soldiers’ point of view- not politically correct drivel about race
  • More living historians- fewer PhD’s
  • Every vote counts- and the electoral process works- accept it.
Destroying history to feel "safe"

Destroying history to feel “safe”

 

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Weekly History News Roundup

History of smallpox being questioned… research suggests disease much younger than previously believed

 

Treasury Department to rush redesigned currencyfears that Trump will block plans to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill

 

US to return part of Okinawa to Japan… military has controlled 10,000 acres since end of WW2

 

Economists finish project documenting American Dreamdata suggests our prospects are steadily declining

 

Congress approves 7,000 acre expansion of Petersburg battlefield… bipartisan effort will generate $10million per year in tourist revenue

 

DNA as historical document

DNA as historical document

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High Crimes Forgiven

Imagine politicians as ideological… as the stubborn stalwarts who occupy the halls of Congress today, living in the early 19th century.  At a time when dueling was still a tolerated method for settling matters of honor, the big talkers of our modern “Tea Party” surely would have sought safer methods for opposing the proponents of “big government” waste.  What would they have thought of our third President fighting an undeclared war in the Mediterranean, or dipping into the treasury for a sum double the federal budget to buy the Louisiana territory?

louisiana-purchase-gif

Would the bluster of current… ideologues such as Darrel Issa and Trey Gowdy have moved Thomas Jefferson to change his policies? Members of the 8th Congress were far more flexible, even pragmatic when dealing with Jefferson’s expansion of executive authority.  Opposing either of Jefferson’s perceived transgressions would have severely damaged their chances of returning to the 9th Congress.  The Louisiana Purchase was immensely popular with the American people, regardless of the Constitutional process it seemed to subvert.  Impeach Thomas Jefferson for violating Article 1; Sec. 8-9 of the Constitution?  Blind ideology would have been silly then- perhaps it still is today…

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