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On the History of Congressional Majorities and the Management of a Nation

by Jeremy D. Lucas, published


One-hundred and twelve legislative bodies have come and gone. We are now in the midst of our 113th Congress. And since our inception, only 27 of these assemblies have consisted of a sixty percent majority in both the House and the Senate; a partisan monopoly on government legislation that eventually became known as the filibuster proof majority. With a sixty percent lead in Congress, whichever party is in control would, theoretically, be impervious to roadblocks.

But is an entire nation of people with different values better off with a single party making any and all decisions without dispute? Should the existing parties strive for absolute power in Congress as the preferred means for getting things done on behalf of all citizens?

Believe it or not, the answer might be a resounding yes. That is, if these 27 prior majorities are any indication of qualitative and/or quantitative results. You be the judge.

Since the founding of our great nation, the United States has continued to expand and evolve, with more and more citizens all vying for the attention of their elected representatives. By design, this Congress of representatives and senators was created through the U.S. Constitution to ensure that no law would be enacted hastily. A fast-moving body of legislators, if unrestrained, could be a danger to society, while a slow-moving body of legislators, if held accountable by the voters, would in theory lead that society to a gradual and more perfect union.

Last month, Americans overwhelming showed their disdain for Congress by illustrating that their frustrations were not related to unresolved political issues. On the contrary, voters had (and have) grown disgusted from the completely ineffective and partisan gridlock that hinders Congress from moving forward, or even backward (think Obamacare) on almost anything of consequence. Fruitless voting and hypocritical patriotism rule the empty floors and busy hallways of legislative government; to the chagrin of Americans who actually have to work for a living.

But we didn’t learn to hate Congress overnight.

From 1789 to 1795, under President Washington’s administration, no formalized parties had been established. Members of Congress were either “pro-administration” or “anti-administration.” Over these six years, there were three sessions of Congress and, understandably, the first session had the greatest number of members with sold-out allegiance to their unanimously elected president. These were not filibuster proof majorities as we think of them today, but definitely close.

Since our earliest years as a nation, senators and congressmen have always been allowed to “talk” their way into obstructing the passage of a bill. If and when someone strenuously objected to the merits of a piece of legislation, we the voters would have expected that our representatives can and should vehemently fight against that legislation through whatever means they are legally able. This was the premise behind the American filibuster.

However, it’s important to clarify that the term “filibuster” (a Dutch word for “pirate”) didn’t become popular until the 1850s when slavery was a hot topic of debate and members wanted a somewhat civilized method for shutting down discussion. Years later, in order to counteract the filibuster, President Wilson urged Congress to adopt a cloture rule (1917) which stated that a legislative body could not be held up by a stubborn minority (or worst of all, a single individual) if at least two-thirds of the members were prepared to move forward with business. By 1975, the number of members necessary to achieve cloture (aka, the filibuster proof majority) dropped to three-fifths.

For the mathematically-challenged, this means that after 1975, sixty percent of the legislators had to be on the same side in order to shut down a filibuster. Hence the name “filibuster proof majority” and the commonly applied assumption that “same side” equates to “same party.”

Keeping in mind that this “filibuster proof majority” of sixty percent did not actually take root until much later in our legislative history, there were, in fact, sixty percent majorities that existed in both houses at the same time on 27 different occasions since Congress took their first seats in 1789. Regardless of whether they considered themselves powerful enough to shut down the minority, a sixty percent majority in both houses was typically sufficient to claim authority over the administration of a nation. Who could tell them otherwise?

The 8th Congress (1), meeting from 1803 to 1805, was the first assembly to reach the sixty percent majority in both houses. Democratic-Republicans were the party in charge and they held to a strict constructionist view of the U.S. Constitution (if it isn’t explicitly written, government shouldn’t do it). Thomas Jefferson had founded the party with James Madison in order to successfully challenge the Federalist Party, which held to a loose constructionist view of the U.S. Constitution (if it isn’t explicitly written, government has the right to consider it for the interest of the people and the welfare of the states).

With Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe (all Democratic Republicans) in successive terms that lasted 24 years (1801-1825), the party had a sixty percent or greater majority in both houses for 11 consecutive terms (1803-1825). At one point, the 10th, 16th, 17th, and 18th Congresses held an eighty to ninety percent majority in both houses. Oh, the tyranny.

What, then, did the 8th (1), 9th (2), 10th (3), 11th (4), 12th (5), 13th (6), 14th (7), 15th (8), 16th (9), 17th (10), and 18th Congresses (11) achieve during their 22 years of absolute power?

  1. The 12th Amendment, modifying the electoral process to ensure that the president and vice president are elected together along the same party line (8th Congress).
  2. The ratification, establishment, and organization of the Louisiana Purchase, the greatest land acquisition in American history (8th, 9th, and 10th Congresses).
  3. The prohibition of slave importation, which did not, of course, halt the right of individual states to import slaves, but disconnected the United States Federal Government from explicitly participating in the trade (9th Congress).
  4. Organization of the Illinois Territory, leading to eventual statehood (10th and 15th Congresses).
  5. Approval of Louisiana as the 18th State (12th Congress).
  6. Approval of Indiana as the 19th State (14th Congress).
  7. Organization of the Alabama Territory, splitting Mississippi into two land masses and paving the way for each to become an individual state (14th Congress).
  8. The Second Bank of the United States is created as a federally managed operation to stabilize currency after the War of 1812 damaged the strength of the America’s early economic reputation (14th Congress).
  9. The take back American pride in the midst of a broken post-war morale, a patriotic and nationalized symbol was established with the Flag Act of 1818, dictating that our flag would contain 13 stripes and that after each Fourth of July celebration, any new states that were added to the union in the prior year would receive a star on the flag (15th Congress).
  10. Approval of Mississippi as the 20th State (15th Congress).
  11. Approval of Illinois as the 21st State (15th Congress).
  12. Organization of the Arkansas Territory (15th Congress).
  13. Approval of Alabama as the 22nd State (16th Congress).
  14. The controversial Missouri Compromise is reached, granting Missouri the right to be a slave holding state with Maine as a free, 23rd State (16th Congress).
  15. Approval of Missouri as the 24th State (17th Congress).
  16. Organization of the Florida Territory (17th Congress).

And the list could go on.

Based on the popular legislation above, Democratic Republicans (the closest thing to a modern conservative) had mainly been tasked with managing land acquisitions and maintaining a fragile union despite a second war on American soil. To a large degree, their party was not unlike the common sense conservatives of our modern day. They wanted the land to thrive and the people to be proud. Based on their incredibly principled views of the constitution, Democratic Republicans also fought amongst themselves over the decision to establish a Federal Bank (#8), even though their initial reasons for doing so had been logical.

After the War of 1812, states were struggling under the weight of international debt and the premise of a Federal Bank had always been about their economic survival. But no matter. A completely strict view of the constitution insisted that if it wasn't written, government shouldn't build it. Period. With such wide margins of congressional authority, who was going to convince the party to loosen up on its ideals?

On a national scale, the Federalist Party drifted out of serious contention by the 17th and 18th Congresses (1821-1825) with barely even a visible percentage to merit consideration. All that voters had to choose from were candidates within the Democratic Republican party. But like all things human, conservatives reached a breaking point and the party began to split over the election of our sixth president.

The single most controversial presidential election in American History was not Gore-Bush of 2000 or Obama-Romney of 2012, but Adams-Jackson of 1824. In this election, which was ultimately decided by the House of Representatives, voters had only one party to choose from on the ballot. Rather than voting on issues, Americans had to decide who, in the same party, they hated more. Was it John Quincy Adams or Andrew Jackson? When no candidate won a majority and Adams was handed the election by the House, Jackson never forgave him the win and came back to unseat him in the very next Election of 1828.

From 1825 to 1829, however, the 19th and 20th Congresses were essentially like they had been under Washington. Members of the House and Senate were either pro-administration (pro-Adams) or anti-administration (pro-Jackson). There were no sixty percent majorities, mind you, but Congress was clearly divided over their hatred for or against an individual and little was achieved during either session.

As Adams reached the end of his first and only term as president, Jackson’s followers were effectively calling themselves Democrats while those who opposed Jackson were either calling themselves National Republicans or Whigs. During this period, with voters seemingly caught between two sides of the same coin, a number of independent parties rose up, including the Nullifier Party and the Know-Nothing Party, but most were state-level operations that never reached national or long term recognition.

Not until the 33rd Congress (12), meeting from 1853 to 1855, did both houses once again achieve a sixty percent majority with Jackson’s Democrats. And similar to the 22-year leadership of Democratic Republicans, the 33rd Congress was focused on organizing territories that ranged from Kansas to Nebraska.

At this point in our history, Americans were deeply embroiled in a debate over the ethics and economics of slavery. Representatives in Congress became the political voices of an unsettled problem.

Democrats were primarily from the south and tended to be supporters of slavery as a state right. Republicans, on the other hand, were passionately and tenaciously leading a charge against the conditions and immorality of slavery. When Civil War broke out in 1861, more than half of the Democratic senators and congressmen joined the Confederacy. Anti-slavery Republicans were, by default, left alone to pass any legislation they deemed beneficial to the fractured union. Though they never achieved a sixty percent majority during the war, Republicans certainly maintained a considerable advantage.

From 1865 to 1875, the 39th (13), 40th (14), 41st (15), and 43rd Congresses (16) held a sixty percent majority in both houses. And yes, Republican conservatives still ruled the legislature. They passed the 14th Amendment outlawing slavery, admitted Nebraska as the 37th State, organized the Wyoming Territory, established three reconstruction acts for admitting confederate states back into the union, and held together a body that was at risk of dismemberment. Not bad.

Once the Civil War was over, unfortunately, the 41st and 43rd Congresses, meeting from 1869 to 1875, were under the control of anti-slavery Republicans in search of new causes to fight. The results were not pretty. Both Congressional bodies passed laws to control and monitor the naturalization of blacks and immigrants, to control Mormons in Utah, and to minimize the allowance of Chinese and Japanese Immigrants. Ironic when we think of their achievement in the abolition of slavery.

Republicans in both houses reacquired a sixty percent majority in 1905 with the 59th Congress (17) and took immediate action on federal regulation of public land, food exports, and meat inspections. Each of these decisions to manage the nation’s land and food were born of just causes, but such is the birth of almost any Federal regulation.

Following World War I, Republicans took one last sixty percent majority in both houses during the 67th Congress (18), from 1921 to 1923, and extended their limits on annual immigration while reducing taxes with the Revenue Act of 1921. In a post-war economy, many Democrats were arguing for greater revenues to cover the cost of war-time expenses that had never been paid. Republicans thought otherwise and passed legislation to lower taxes instead. Sound familiar?

Within just a few years, the nation encountered their first major crash on Wall Street and the idealistic vision of a fair and unregulated capitalism was brought into question. The age of conservative rule in Congress was effectively over.

After three years of the Great Depression, Americans gladly and understandably embraced President Franklin Roosevelt and his Democratic ideas. Until that point, every sixty percent majority in both houses of Congress consisted of members who fundamentally believed in smaller government and less regulation (despite the gradual regulation that was being slowly imposed by Republicans).

Congress had never attempted to expand government for the welfare of the people. At least, not to the extent that Roosevelt encouraged them with his Looking Forward publication in 1933.

“There were those who, because they had seen the confusion which attended the years of war for American independence, surrendered to the belief that popular government was essentially dangerous and essentially unworkable. These thinkers were, generally, honest and we cannot deny that their experience had warranted some measure of fear.”

Roosevelt was carefully acknowledging that up until his administration, the United States had primarily been led by a small government, for fear that a larger government would be dangerous and ineffective. But the problem, as he saw it, was that corporate industry had learned to appeal for government benefits without being held accountable to government regulations, thus leading to a general collapse of economic balance. In essence, government was seen by business owners as a tool to be manipulated.

“We do not want the government in business. But we must realize the implications of the past. For while it has been American doctrine that the government must not go into business in competition with private enterprises, still it has been tradition for business to urgently ask the government to put at private disposal all kinds of government assistance. The same man who says he does not want to see the government interfere in business…is the first to go to Washington to ask the government for a prohibitory tariff on his product. When things get just bad enough—as they did in 1930—he will go with equal speed to the United States Government and ask for a loan.”

Reflecting on the turn of the century, Roosevelt went on to argue that once the country had no more free land to go after in the late 19th Century, businesses and corporations began turning inward. Unregulated corporations, as Roosevelt saw them, were becoming a threat to the personal freedom and private property of individual citizens. And with little regulation after the Crash, businesses were still imploring the government for money, despite individual citizens facing a far worse economic hit and having no aid on their behalf.

Enter the New Deal.

Attempting to aid the individual citizen, Roosevelt launched an experimental government that lasted from 1933 to 1943. This period included, for the first time, sixty percent liberal majorities (Democrats) in both houses for the 73rd (19), 74th (20), 75th (21), and 77th Congresses (22).

Republicans, faced with reality of having unsuccessfully managed the Depression up to that point, were basically powerless. Democrats appeared fresh, poised, and ready to carry the torch of a legislative majority for years to come.

During the Roosevelt era—arguably the most productive of any Congressional age that came before or after—endless legislation was passed in order to foster this new agenda on behalf of individual Americans.

The Glass-Steagall Act established the FDIC and provided a security of insurance for individuals depositing money into a bank. The Civilian Conservation Corps established a work relief program for the unemployed. The National Housing Act was meant to improve housing standards and provide adequate financing. The Social Security Act became the first of its kind to advocate for the long term financial protection of our nation’s elderly. The National Labor Relations Act gave workers the right to unionize and bargain for their wages. The Fair Labor Standards Act required a national minimum wage for individuals employed by a business.

This list of congressional legislation went on and on. Of course, as we look back in retrospect, many of the New Deal laws turned out to be unsustainable and have, over time, received their due criticism, but their Democratic objectives were never tyrannical or sinister. When the nation finally climbed out of depression, it wasn't hard to imagine why the New Deal party found widespread support with the voters.

Distinguishing themselves as a populist party of the people, Democrats would retain a sixty percent majority in both houses during the 86th (23), from 1959 to 1961, 87th (24), from 1961 to 1963, 89th (25), from 1965 to 1967, 94th (26), from 1975 to 1977, and 95th (27), from 1977 to 1979 Congresses. And to this day, Democrats, understandably flaunting themselves as defenders of individual equality, have been the only party to achieve a sixty percent majority in both houses since the Great Depression. Republicans, perceiving themselves as defenders of the state, have struggled to achieve a sixty percent majority in even one house of Congress during the bulk of that period.

Despite a nationwide hope for reach-across-the-aisle bipartisanship, the fact is, congressional majorities seem to get quite a bit done, for better or worse. Conservatives, believing in limited government and patriotic idealism, ruled the 19th Century of American government. Liberals, believing in a compassionate government and individual rights, ruled the 20th Century of American government. Both parties made tremendous achievements and colossal failures along the way, proving that they are, in the end, just human groups made up of human individuals with lofty and imperfect ideas about how best to manage a human nation.

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