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CONNECTIONS: Timeless congressional indecision

We have survived 240 years and you know what they say: the more things change, the more they remain the same.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

So we don’t have a ninth member of the Supreme Court, or gun ownership regulations or an increased minimum wage or equal pay for equal work or…

Apparently, the problem is that Congress cannot make a decision. Our elected officials are ineffective. They argue about silly things. They are more concerned about politics than the body politic. Please do not despair. We have survived 240 years and you know what they say: the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The Daily Evening Traveler, February 3, 1851: “The orders of the day were again taken up and the report of the Committee on Elections was heard.”

Here was the problem: Mr. Rugo claimed he had a right to a seat in the House. After all, he had been elected to it, and was appalled that some would block his taking it.

But wait: the other side argued that Mr. 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 closing time of the poll, which was 5 p.m.

No votes cast after that hour should count, in which case the result may have been different. No one knew for sure at that late date – three months after the election – but there was conjecture that, if the legal closing had been strictly observed, Mr. Rugo’s opponent may have won.

It was a knotty problem. It was referred to committee.

After months in committee, a report was issued. A member of the opposing party to Mr. Rugo’s 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.”

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

The Right Honorable Whoever rose to define the issue: “The question depends upon the time of closing of the polls in that district and [of course] 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.”

The Representative who saw it as his duty to clarify the issue as the debate proceeded 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.”

Ah-ha! But the 10 or 12 watches that disagreed with the Clerk’s watch did not agree with one another!

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?”

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 had 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.

The issue of whether Mr. Rugo could take his seat was not entertained.

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