Harmon’s Histories: Congress is a ‘quarreling mob,’ then and now
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
Congress is a quarreling mob; a disgrace to the country. Bedlam reigns!
“The dominant party is pulling and hauling in itself and none of the numerous factions that comprise it are willing to yield to any other. Legislation is impossible.”
“The thing for the present Congress to do is to adjourn and adjourn quickly. There is no possibility of its accomplishing anything of advantage to the people now, if there ever was.”
Sounds like something you could easily read in today’s newspaper accounts.
But it’s from a Missoulian newspaper editorial written in April 1894, when Democrats controlled both the White House and the Congress.
“A condition of unrelenting warfare exists between the president and the Congress. What Congress is willing to do is not acceptable to Mr. Cleveland and what Mr. Cleveland wants done Congress will not do.”
“The commerce of the country is paralyzed. Strikes and quarrels with public authority are general. The miserable scoundrels that misrepresent the interests of their constituents are planning to further distress the nation by the enactment of further senseless measures. ... Let them adjourn and go home.”
In the 1894 fall election, the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress in a Republican landslide (the largest power reversal ever witnessed in a House election).
Acrimony in Congress boiled over in the following year. The Missoulian opined, “There are two parties standing facing each other with hot criminations ready to spring from their lips.”
“A young Senate is being domineered over by a few octogenarians. The two parties are utterly demoralized and unsettled on future legislation. All are sitting on the political fence, preparing a party showing that will be presentable to the people next year.”
The newspaper’s conclusion: “The 54th Congress (will be) one of the most useless the country has ever seen.”
Minnesota Congressman Ignatius Donnelly, commenting on the situation, said “The man who steals a sack of flour to save his wife and children from starvation is a thief and is sent to prison; but the cuss who robs his victims by thousands is a financier and is sent to Congress.”
Of course, in all fairness, it must also be disclosed that Donnelly, who was known to dabble in pseudoscience and pseudo-history, was a purveyor of fringe theories about the lost world of Atlantis and similar topics.
The Missoulian characterized another Congressman, James Edwin Campbell from Ohio, as “useless in Congress as a toothless kid at a pie eating contest.”
Of course, if Congress is a quarreling mob and a disgrace to the country, there’s nothing to do but appoint a committee to investigate!
The trouble was, pointed out the editorial staff, if we do that we will have to “have an investigating committee of the investigating committee (followed by) an investigating committee of the investigating committee of the investigating committee - and so on, ad infinitum. It is useless.”
Hmmm. It seems some things never change.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.