Friday, April 8, 2011

What a Shutdown Means for America’s Government

Heather Cox Richardson

Pundits are framing the threatened government shutdown as a battle over two different partisan visions. But it is far more than that. It is an attack on the American system of government.
The country went through this very fight in 1879. At that time, deep in the conflicts that redefined the American government after the Civil War, participants articulated well what they were fighting about: should Congress’s responsibility for appropriations allow representatives to dictate national policy?

The answer, Americans insisted then, was no.

The story then developed much like it has today. In the 1870s, during an economic depression on the Republicans’ watch, voters gave Democrats control of Congress for the first time since the Civil War. But the Democrats had a problem. They had no real leaders and no economic program. Their best thinkers had been peeled away by the Confederacy and discredited, and in the 1870s, no one had any idea how to combat economic stagnation.

What the Democrats did have was a vociferous Southern white base that resented federal protection of black rights. Party leaders had stoked that anger since the war. Once in power, the only agenda they had was the removal of the very few government troops that still remained in the South to protect black voters.

In spring 1879, Congress passed an appropriations bill to fund the government for the next fiscal year, beginning July 1. Democrats attached riders to the measure requiring the removal of troops from the South and making it a crime to hold troops at Southern polls, a crime punishable by a $5000 fine and up to five years at hard labor, that is, at the chain gangs that were becoming prevalent across the South. With extremist newspapers egging them on, Democratic Congressmen forced President Rutherford B. Hayes either to accept their demands or to veto the imperative financial bill.

Republicans recognized the Democrats’ stance as revolutionary. A faction was willing to destroy the government to achieve a pet goal. Republicans noted that this was simply a states’ rights argument in new garb. Confederates had tried to get their way with arms and had failed, but now unreconstructed Southern Democrats had figured out how to get their way without firing a shot. They simply had to use the House’s power of appropriation. Attaching policy riders to imperative revenue measures would let them dictate national policy forever, constantly overriding the president and judiciary.

President Hayes did not actually care about keeping troops in the South, but refused to bow to “the dangerous doctrine” that Congress could “absorb all the powers of all the Departments of the Government.” Congress passed five appropriations bills with riders; Hayes vetoed each one. The struggle went on for five months. Finally, with popular opinion running heavily against them, the Democrats backed down.

While policy differences between the parties began the 1879 struggle, Republicans quickly saw it for what it was: a blow at the very heart of the American system of checks and balances. They refused to accept it. The American people backed the Republicans, and the newly ascendant fortunes of the Democratic Party deflated. In 1880, Americans put James A. Garfield, the Republican House leader who had led the fight against the riders, into the White House.

The same governmental principle is at stake today. It remains as crucial now as it was in 1879.

6 comments:

Randall said...

Heather: Thanks for this historical comparison. It seems like the political backlash could be traced to other eras as well.

dan allosso said...

2 questions about the photo: first, is it backwards? Is the script behind Hayes going the wring way? Second, is it true that sticking your hand in your jacket like that is a Masonic signal? If so, does it matter whether it's the right or left hand?

Randall said...

Good question! This is from the LOC and I posted it as is. Sometimes the writing appears backwards. Not sure why. Have seen this on plenty of other photos in the collection. Not sure about the Masonic thing!

dan allosso said...

When I used to do old fashioned photography, this would happen sometimes, when I put the negative in upside down (that is, emulsion facing in the wrong direction). It's much more difficult in the darkroom, to see left/right, and when you're in a hurry, it's easy to forget that it matters (since with the up/down it doesn't -- you just turn the paper right side up).

I imagine with big, glass negatives, it's easier to keep things straight. But not knowing under what circumstances these prints were made, it's possible they were printed wrong. It's also possible, if the LOC scans were done from the negs, that they were scanned backwards. But it's also possible that whatever that printing is behind him, it was meant to be seen from the other side...

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Heather, thank you so much for this succinct and yet trenchant essay. I will be sharing it widely. Wow.

dan allosso said...

It’s interesting that in two recent pieces, Heather describes bad politics of the past from both sides of the aisle that look and feel a lot like bad politics of the present. On the THS site, it’s bad Democrats holding the federal budget captive and playing shutdown brinksmanship. In the Huffington post, it’s Republicans insisting that the only way out of our economic doldrums is to give even more to the wealthiest Americans. Makes me wonder who, if anyone, was looking out for and representing regular people?