My recent column on our first Congress generated a lot of mail, most of which said, in effect, “Boy, the more things change, the more they stay the same.” In that column I pointed out that the issues our first Congress dealt with during its first six weeks in office ranged from the unimportant, to the petty, to the partisan, to the just plain selfish, which reminded many readers of how Congress does business today.
This reader reaction has prompted me to expand a bit on that first Congress because, to be fair, after it got done with this original six-week “silly season” (let’s call it), it actually got a lot of important business done — including setting up the rules and procedures necessary to establish an operational governing system.
Congress began by passing laws creating a department of State, of War (now Defense) and of the Treasury, as well as a federal judiciary.
Next, in accordance with the Constitution, Congress passed laws giving the national government the power to collect revenue through imposts and duties on imported goods. That revenue would be used to fund the entire government, including Congress.
That done, Congress passed laws setting the salaries of government officials. Congress set the salaries of the secretaries of State and Treasury at $3,500 each, but the secretary of War’s at just $3,000, perhaps anticipating (or hoping) that the first State and Treasury secretaries would have more to do than the first War secretary. The president was to earn $25,000 a year, while the vice president earned $5,000, which might actually have been overly generous given how little the Constitution gives the vice president to do.
In addition to having previously awarded itself a salary of $6 a day for every day Congress was in session ($7 a day for senators), Congress gave itself a travel expense of $6 for every 20 miles its members had to travel to and from Congress, which, for many members of Congress, was as much of an expense as their salaries, given the distances they had to travel.
Congress even passed a law creating a governmental department that, for many decades, would carry out the federal government’s most important responsibility and employ more federal workers than the rest of the government combined: the U.S. Postal Service.
In sum, this was far from the “do nothing” Congresses that we complain about today, and one reason why it got so much done is that its members put partisanship behind them and engaged in informed debate, compromise and consensus before passing laws, not only amongst themselves, but also with the executive branch.
It is that last point that today’s Congress, and executive branch, ought to keep foremost in mind.