It's time to blow the whistle on two erroneous statements that opponents and proponents of the health care legislation being jammed through Congress have been making. Republicans have been saying that never before has Congress passed such an unpopular bill with such important ramifications by such a narrow majority. Barack Obama has been saying that passage of the bill will mean that the health care issue will be settled once and for all.
The Republicans and Obama are both wrong. But perhaps they can be forgiven because the precedent for Congress passing an unpopular bill is an old one, and the issue it addressed has long been settled, though not by the legislation in question.
That legislation was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Its lead sponsor was Stephen A. Douglas, at 41 in his eighth year as senator from Illinois, the most dynamic leader of a Democratic Party that had won the previous presidential election by 254 electoral votes to 42.
Douglas' legislative prowess far exceeded that of current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. To hold together his 60 Senate Democrats, Reid simply dispensed favors -- eternal Medicaid financing for Ben Nelson's Nebraska, a hospital grant for Chris Dodd's Connecticut, more rural health money for Byron Dorgan's North Dakota and Montana's Max Baucus.
Douglas did something far more difficult. He got the Senate to pass a bill some of whose provisions were supported by half of the Senate plus Douglas and some of which were supported by the other half plus Douglas. After passage, Douglas spent a day getting drunk -- a consolation unavailable to the teetotaling Reid.
The issue that Douglas said the Kansas-Nebraska Act would settle forever was slavery in the territories. His bill repealed the 34-year-old Missouri Compromise prohibiting slavery in territories north of Arkansas and substituted popular sovereignty -- territory residents could vote slavery up or down.
We cannot say with assurance that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was unpopular -- Dr. Gallup didn't start polling until 81 years later. But the results of the next election were pretty convincing. The Republican Party was suddenly created to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the 1854-55 elections transformed the Democrats' 159-71 majority to a 108-83 Republican margin. Democrats didn't win a majority of House seats for the next 20 years.
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