Carole Owens: The long history of Congress' dithering

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Do you wonder why Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blocks everything and does nothing? Did you notice it is bipartisan sloth? Whether a Democrat or Republican is in the White House, the work piles up on McConnell's desk.

Apparently, the problem is that Congress cannot make a decision, or our elected officials do not want to be observed making a decision. They are more concerned about politics than the body politic. However, you know what they say: The more things change the more they remain the same.

On Feb. 3, 1851, the Daily Traveler reported: "The orders of the day were again taken up and the report of the Committee on Elections was heard."

The issue at hand: Mr. Rugo — the contemporaneous account did not include his first name — claimed he had a right to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. After all, he had been elected to a seat representing Massachusetts and was appalled that some would block his taking it.

But wait — the other side argued that Rugo only had sufficient votes to beat his opponent and claim that seat because, in his district, they defied the rules and continued to allow voting after the legal poll closing time, which was 5 p.m.

No votes cast after that hour should count. If the counting had stopped at 5 p.m., the result may have been different. Since it was now three months after the election, no one remembered or knew for sure what the count was at 5 p.m. There was conjecture that if the legal closing had been strictly observed, his opponent may have won.

It was a knotty problem. It was referred to committee. After months in committee, a report was issued. The committee would accept the result of the vote and therefore seat Rugo.

A member of the opposing party to Rugo's, the Whigs, objected to the report. "All the testimony gathered was not contained in the committee report, and [I am] in favor of resubmitting it to the committee with the instruction to report more fully."

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This prompted debate on the floor. The debate was either about the issue itself or the adequacy of the report. That is, the decision to be reached was either about whether Rugo could be seated and therefore his district be represented or about whether the report was adequate could be accepted.

The Right Honorable whoever rose to define the issue: "The question depends upon the time of closing of the polls in that district and what time it actually was."

Another was quick on his feet: "There were a dozen watches which proved the polls were open long after closing time."

That could not be allowed to stand on the record without refutation. "Yes but there were two or three [watches] — including the clerk's watch — that proved the polls closed on time."

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As the debate dragged on, the representative who saw it as his duty to clarify the issue rose again: "The committee did not inquire into the politics of the clerk's watch. If the watch in question belonged to a certain political party, it could account for its contradicting the dozen other watches."

A-ha! Watches are affiliated with political parties! Who knew!

The problems multiplied. Two or three watches agreed with the clerk's watch, but 10 or 12 watches disagreed. Sadly, the 10 or 12 watches that disagreed with the clerk's watch also disagreed with one another! Now what?

A fair-minded representative who meant to do his job, go home and sleep the sleep of the righteous rose to ask, "Did the two or three other watches agree exactly with the clerk's?"

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They did.

Well then

They referred to the committee report. Sure enough it did contain the twin facts: the 10 or 12 watches were out of time with each other while the clerk's watch was in agreement with the two or three others. In addition, the committee sought to compare the time on the clerk's watch with a clock in a government building and found that "not long after election day" the clerk's watch was "about right."

On these three facts, it was moved and seconded that the report of the committee be accepted as adequate and stand unchanged. The motion passed. Self-satisfied with a job well done, the House adjourned at quarter past two.

However, no kidding, the issue of whether or not Rugo could take his seat was not addressed. The committee report was vindicated, but if Wikipedia is correct, there remained one vacant seat in the Massachusetts delegation to the 31st U.S. Congress.

We have survived the intervening 169 years with decisions and lack of decisions just as silly. Unfortunately, the more recent lack of action is not silly, it negatively impacts millions of Americans. People rely on the Post Office, always have — actually, the post office is so reliable, we take it for granted. Americans who lost jobs amid the COVID-19 outbreak and were assisted by federally-supplemented unemployment insurance, no longer are. The legislation to fund both sits unconsidered on McConnell's desk.

Probably Rugo's fate did not impact the course of American history; current lack of action could.

A writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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