In a speech on the House floor Monday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) claimed that Republicans’ tax plan represented “the worst bill in the history of the United States Congress.”
Granted, this observer thinks the tax package does have some flaws. And Pelosi’s complaints about passing a trillion-dollar-plus bill at the “speed of light” would have credibility if they did not come from Ms. Pass-the-Bill-So-That-You-Can-Find-Out-What’s-in-It herself.
But the idea that allowing people to keep some more of their hard-earned money represents the “worst bill in the history of the United States Congress” tells people all they need to know about the current beliefs of the Democratic Party.
So if the tax package doesn’t qualify as the worst bill in congressional history, then what does? (And no, “All of them” does not constitute an acceptable response.) In a completely unscientific survey, this putative historian wracked his brain to come up with acts that might qualify—all of them more than half a century old, thereby avoiding current political fights (e.g., PATRIOT Act, TARP, Obamacare, etc.) that may fade over time.
1. Sedition Act (1798)
This act, enacted during the so-called “quasi-war” that featured naval conflict with France, criminalized “scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either House of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States” with “intent to defame…or to bring them…into contempt or disrepute”—a definition that could easily encompass Donald Trump’s Twitter account, and most responses to Trump’s tweets.
Several individuals received convictions under the Sedition Act, with one sentenced to 18 months in prison for making political statements ostensibly protected by the First Amendment. In the wake of public outrage over Sedition Act prosecutions, Congress allowed the Act to lapse in 1800, but not before the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions—which argued that states had the right to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional—laid the intellectual groundwork for the nullification and secession movements that precipitated the Civil War.
2. Embargo Act (1807)
Facing violations of American neutrality as Britain and France fought amongst themselves in the Napoleonic Wars, Congress at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson devised a response that punished the United States more than the two belligerents: cutting American goods from overseas markets.
Not only did the act’s unintended consequences harm the American economy, it also failed to accomplish its intended aim. Conflicts between Britain and the United States over the impressment of American citizens grew, such that the United States declared war in 1812.
3. Fugitive Slave Act (1850)
While legislation regarding slavery could comprise this entire list, the Fugitive Slave Act, one of the elements of the Compromise of 1850, stands out as particularly onerous. It subjected individuals who provided runaway slaves with food and shelter to six months’ imprisonment, and did not permit suspected slaves to challenge their status in court—thus encouraging people to kidnap free blacks and their impressment into slavery.
4. Tenure of Office Act (1867)
In attempting to micro-manage Reconstruction of the South following the Civil War, the “Radical Republican” Congress passed a measure requiring the president to obtain the Senate’s approval before dismissing any Senate-confirmed official. If the Senate did not grant its consent, the official would remain in office.
The act provoked a constitutional crisis when President Andrew Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the official whose job the Tenure of Office Act attempted to preserve. The House impeached Johnson for violating the act, and the Senate prevented his removal by only one vote.
Succeeding presidents continued to criticize the act as an unconstitutional infringement of executive authority until Congress finally repealed it. In a 1926 ruling, the Supreme Court went out of its way to classify the long-since-repealed Tenure of Office Act as invalid.
5. Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)
The title of this act explains its purpose: Preventing people from immigrating to the United States simply on the basis of their national origin. First intended as a ten-year exclusion, the restrictions on Chinese immigration were extended until finally repealed in 1943—more than six decades later.
6. Volstead Act (1919)
While the Eighteenth Amendment permitted Congress to enact legislation prohibiting “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” the Volstead Act actually put that power into practice—or tried to, anyway. In reality, Americans actually increased their alcohol consumption during the Prohibition years, and the increase in prices caused by making alcohol illicit fueled a national crime binge.
Prohibition proved so unpopular that Congress didn’t even bother repealing the Volstead Act. It passed the Twenty-First Amendment, which effectively repealed the law by revoking Congress’ authority to pass a Prohibition law, then or in the future. (As opposed to Obamacare, which Republicans promised for years to repeal and then, y’know…)
7. Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964)
Pelosi’s complaints about the bill notwithstanding, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution’s consideration makes Congress’ current pace on tax legislation seem glacial. After a mere nine hours of committee consideration and floor debate, Congress approved a joint resolution giving the president a virtual blank check “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty.”
Only two members of Congress—Democratic senators Ernest Gruening and Wayne Morse—voted against the legislation, with the latter saying at the time he thought it “a historic mistake.” Regardless of one’s position on the merits of the Vietnam conflict, it seems foolhardy to have passed a measure leading to the deployment of what became more than two million troops after so little debate, particularly as the “incident” that prompted the resolution likely never took place.