After the Democrats’ shellacking at the polls in November, liberal pundits began evoking the Republican Congress that took power after a similar electoral defeat during President Harry Truman’s first term. The “do nothing” Congress lasted just two years; in 1948, the Republicans ceded control of the Hill, and Truman was narrowly re-elected president. President Obama would like to replay this script and will take every opportunity to tag the incoming House Republican majority as obstructionist, irresponsible and out of touch. Yet in some respects, the 80th Congress set an example from which the 112th Congress could benefit.
Republicans took control of both houses of Congress in 1946, running on the still timely slogan “Had Enough?” Voters were fed up with continuing price controls and other restrictive programs that had been put in place during World War II but that liberal government functionaries were loath to give up. Then as now, Republicans promised smaller government, lower taxes and fewer regulations.
Previous Democratic Congresses had run up unprecedented debt, and the Republicans were determined to balance the federal budget. Rep. John Tabor, New York Republican, pithily summarized the president’s first proposed budget as “too damn high.” Republicans were as good as their word, and federal outlays declined an astonishing 47 percent between 1946 and 1948. This was in part because of post-World War II demobilization but also because Republicans cut every program they could.
The GOP also tried to cut taxes, which brought a swift veto from Truman, who called the bill “the wrong kind of tax cutting at the wrong time.” A second bill, which Truman called a “rich man’s tax relief bill” also was vetoed. In both cases, the vetoes were overridden in the House but not the Senate. A third, watered down tax cut survived. Republican policies took the federal budget from a 31 percent deficit in 1946 to a 40 percent surplus in 1948. This came about in spite of, not because of, Truman’s obstructionism. Congress also enacted the landmark Taft-Hartley Labor Act, which was passed over Truman’s veto by a coalition of Republicans and (now mostly extinct) Southern Democrats.
Congress generally supported Truman’s foreign policy, which was strongly anti-communist. Congress approved the Marshall Plan for rebuilding postwar Europe, supported the Berlin Airlift and condemned the Soviet-backed communist coup in Czechoslovakia. In 1948, the Senate passed the Vandenberg Resolution, which paved the way for the formation of NATO. But congressional Republicans got little credit for this show of bipartisan unity. Republicans also were concerned about excessive amounts of international borrowing, but in those days, the issue at hand was the amount of U.S. loans to other countries, not America going hat in hand to China to borrow money to underwrite out-of-control federal spending.
In retrospect, the 80th Congress did a lot, but it did not do what Mr. Truman wanted. In his 1948 State of the Union message, the president called for an increase in business taxes to offset income-tax reductions for low-wage earners, a plan Congress rejected. He also called for a national health care program financed by compulsory insurance, a policy of dubious constitutionality passed with Obamacare but the 112th Congress will seek to repeal.
The “do nothing” tag was the result of a political ambush. Truman called a special session of Congress in the summer of 1948 for action on the more liberal aspects of his social agenda. When Congress predictably refused to enact those measures, the slogan took flight. In the 1948 election, the Republicans lost 75 seats in the House and eight in the Senate, surrendering control of both bodies. Truman pulled out an upset victory over favored Republican Thomas E. Dewey. He benefited from a 3.8 percent unemployment rate and economic growth of 4.4 percent, both of which were largely products of conservative economic policies pushed by Congress. True to form, the new Democratic majority in the 81st Congress put the budget back into deficit.
A “do nothing” Congress would be a relief after the 111th “spend everything” Congress with its most noteworthy achievement - creating more debt than the first 100 Congresses combined. But Republicans face a false choice between pursuing Mr. Obama’s left-wing agenda and doing nothing. The new Congress was sent to Washington to fulfill a popular mandate for smaller government, lower taxes, decreased regulation and a general dismantling of the nanny-state excesses of the past two years. If its new members do the right thing and stick to that agenda, they can return to the voters in 2012 with a record worth defending. And they can be secure in the knowledge that Mr. Obama is no Harry Truman.
James S. Robbins is senior editorial writer for foreign affairs at The Washington Times and author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive” (Encounter Books, 2010).