Tuesday, July 10, 2012

real gridlock

Lately I've been reading about Rutherford B. Hayes, a mostly forgotten one-term president from 1877-1881. He was elected by one electoral vote more than his Democratic rival in the scandal-tainted election of 1876 when a commission, voting on party lines, awarded him the votes of three southern states with highly disputed results. To win southern support, Hayes promised to withdraw U.S. troops from the former Confederate states, where they had been propping up Republican-controlled state governments that were helping to empower former slaves. Hayes' action marked the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of white efforts to reclaim political dominance over blacks.

That was a devil's bargain that derailed the train of liberty for another 90 years. But what fascinates me now is how Hayes dealt with a Democratic congress. In 1877, he vetoed the army appropriations bill that contained a southern rider seeking to repeal the law posting federal marshals at southern polling stations. With the veto and the adjournment of Congress, the army had no funds for six months until the next Congress voted an acceptable bill.  The army went unpaid but continued to function.

In 1879, the outgoing 45th Congress adjourned without passing appropriations bills for the army or the civilian agencies and Hayes summoned the new 46th Congress into special session. Four times the lawmakers passed money bills with objectionable riders, and four times Hayes successfully vetoed them. Again, the army went without pay but the rest of government did not shut down. Finally, after four months, Hayes relented.

I've asked some budget law experts why the government did not shut down -- as happened in similar circumstances in the Clinton administration, but nobody knows for sure what the legal thinking was then.

If the past is prologue, what we have here is an example of real, persistent, partisan gridlock, but with few real world consequences. That's not the case today, whether over the debt limit or taxes or budget sequestration. This fall, we'll see whether partisanship or statesmanship prevails.

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