I had a dream, crazy dream. Anything I wanted to know, any place I needed to go, hear my song. People won’t you listen now? Sing along. So sings Robert Plant in Led Zepplin’s classic from 1973. Last night, I saw a wonderful show about a vaudeville couple frozen for 70 years and then thawed out to find that modern musicians had been stealing their songs. It seems that classics like Girls Just Want to Have Fun (written about suffragettes) and Fat Bottomed Girls (about corsets) are actually derived from 1920’s ballads and Charlestons!
It was a silly premise and a funny show, but it got me thinking about the current political economic environment. Is this period more confrontational and less productive than earlier times? Is the Obama era different, or does the song really remain the same?
Actually, it is very difficult to find out how productive a given period is politically. The attached graphic, developed by political scientists Nathan J. Kelly and J. Tobin Grant does provide a good visual perspective of various periods of American politics up to the first year of the Obama Administration. As the graph shows, Congressional activity between the founding of the republic and the Civil War was fairly consistent. This is particularly interesting since the number of federal laws started at – well at zero. From the graph it seems that the average Congress (which last for 2 years) passed well under 200 new laws. This changed with the Civil War, when the federal government became much more active in that it had to defend the Union. Beginning with Lincoln’s presidency in 1860, the number of laws enacted by the federal government more than doubled to between 300 and 400 per Congressional Session, before falling back to the 200-300 range in the post war period. Similar swings occurred during the industrialization period of the 1880s (during Grover Cleveland’s Presidency) and during the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th Century. After each growth spurt in federal lawmaking however, Congress became somewhat less active for a time.
This all changed beginning with the Roaring Twenties, a period in American Politics dominated by conservatism. In fact, the most productive Congress ever appears to be the Republican 70th Congress. While activity fell after this, it surged again during the Second World War, and really did not start to dwindle until the latter half of the 1960s. Interestingly, under President Obama, the 111th Congress passed just 383 bills, and the 112th just 238, much more in line with the time of Lincoln.
Interestingly, nearly all of the decrease in the number of bills passed has to do with the decline in what are called private bills. Private bills are laws that apply to a particular individual or group and generally grant some sort of unique benefit – such as citizenship, relief from another law, or a grant. These bills were very common in Congress up until the early 1970s (in fact in the 1950s, Congress passed twice as many private bills as public laws) but are now very uncommon. Today, regulatory agencies handle most of this activity, and nearly all of the reduction in Congressional productivity up until the 1990s was due to the elimination of private bills.
Since 1990, under both Republican and Democratic Presidents, the number of bills passed by Congress has been falling slowly and steadily. This could be due to the fact that past Congresses have granted so much authority to the regulatory state. This can be seen in the number of pages published each year in the Federal Register, which went from about 20,000 in 1970 (when Congress passed around 700 laws) to 82,500 pages in 2011 and 77,200 pages in 2012, years in which Congress passed a relatively few 238 laws.
So what does this all mean? Is the political system more dysfunctional than in the past? In fact, its really hard to say that it is. Sure Congress and the President are much less active on the legislative front, but there are reasons for much of this that lie outside of the political system itself. But most of the differences between parties, between conservatives and liberals, between north and south, and between rural and urban America have been solved. Issues that seem divisive today are nowhere near as important or all-encompassing as past debates over slavery, suffrage, or succession. In Lincoln’s time a majority of Americans truly believed that individuals of color were barley human. Lincoln himself did not oppose slavery but rather the expansion of slavery. These grand issues have now been decided and enshrined in laws and in the Constitution. While issues like same-sex marriage and abortion can be argued on similar grounds, no sane American is suggesting that people be shackled or disenfranchised simply because of their race or sexual orientation.
Nearly all Americans from all political stripes believe that there should be some sort of social welfare system, and that the country needs to be involved in world affairs. Eighty years ago this was not the case, and a large number of prominent Americans and politicians even argued passionately against helping the British defeat the Nazis. Today, while we may disagree about the importance of having boots on the ground in Afghanistan, few would argue against supporting allies or ensuring that terrorists are kept at bay.
So maybe the song does not remain the same. Maybe America does grow, evolve and change over time. And maybe the battles between Republicans and Democrats, between Congress and the President are a healthy part of the American democratic system. If, like the vaudeville act, we come back in 70 years I think the music will surely be different.