America's Civic Deadlock and the Politics of CrisisIssue: May-June 2012
WHEN U.S. lawmakers returned to Washington in December 1849 for the Thirty-First Congress, they knew they faced a raucous session. As Washington’s Democratic newspaper, the Daily Union, editorialized, “A crisis in our affairs is rapidly approaching, and great events are near at hand.” But the members could not foresee the magnitude of legislative dysfunction. The crisis emerged when the House couldn’t muster a majority to elect a Speaker. Without a Speaker, the chamber couldn’t organize, and committees couldn’t meet. Without a functioning House, the Senate couldn’t do business either. President Zachary Taylor couldn’t send up his annual message and set a national agenda. Congress couldn’t appropriate money. The government froze.