In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle caused a national sensation and created a national scandal out of the meatpacking industry. Although the point of the novel was the exploitation of workers and a forum for Sinclair’s socialist philosophy, the public was more outraged by its lurid tales of the shockingly unsanitary conditions in which canned meat—or so-called meat—products were prepared and processed. President Theodore Roosevelt was among those who panned the politics but was shocked into action by its allegations of indifference to public health. After a report Roosevelt commissioned confirmed most of the novel’s allegations (workers falling into boiling vats and coming out as household “lard” was not, however, confirmed as true), it seemed easy sailing to get a law passed through Congress regulating the industry; indeed a robust law passed the U.S. Senate that included mandatory dating and a requirement that the meat industry be required to foot the bill for inspection, since a federal stamp of approval would be to their benefit as well as the public.
But as James Davidson and Mark Lytle chronicle in their book After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, this story was far from over. Roosevelt was part of the “progressive” wing of the Republican Party, which included Wisconsin Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette—whose political philosophy could accurately be described as “socialist.” But then as now many Republicans were tools of industry, and in the House of Representatives the proposed food safety law ran into fanatical opposition by members of the president’s own party. Although the law would have easily passed had it been voted out of committee, it was prevented from doing so by Republicans with ties to the meatpacking industry who argued that food safety laws were unnecessary and burdensome.
Roosevelt first tried to persuade and then bludgeon a law through the House, and the watered-down bill that eventually was passed was threatened with defeat by angry Senators who objected to the removal of the mandatory dating and business-financed inspection provisions; but at the last moment, when it seemed certain that no bill would pass at all, Roosevelt persuaded enough Senators to support the Meat Inspection and Pure Food and Drug Acts to eventual passage. Some people might be surprised to learn that other than infant products, dating processed food is still "voluntary" and not required by law.
This episode reveals how even with a popular and charismatic president, widespread public support and even a majority in both houses of Congress ready and willing to pass an effective law, even a small cadre of right-wing zealots can prevent its passage, or one that barely resembles what its backers originally intended. Thus it is hardly surprising that the health care reform and financial regulation bills that finally passed during Barack Obama’s first term were far from what their backers had hoped, and that immigration reform today is far from a done deal, and debt reduction talks continue to be at an impasse, as Republicans in the House insist on deep cuts in Medicare and other programs for the poor.
This is the cost of “divided” government, in this case when one party that is bent on obstruction is in control of one chamber of Congress. One may ask how Franklin Delano Roosevelt managed to get through Congress such sweeping measures that even during the Great Depression most Republicans denounced as “socialist” and stridently opposed—backed by extremist “Tea Party”-like groups that were not shy about expressing their racial attitudes. The reason was that Republicans were for once recognized as being grossly out-of-step with the times; as one Republican senator ruefully chided his party, people “can’t eat the Constitution.” Translation: In FDR’s first term, he had a 59-36 filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a 311-117 majority in the House. In the 1934 bi-election, Democrats won a supermajority of 70-23 in the Senate and even gained in the House. In 1936, the Democrats increased their take to 75 seats in the Senate, and in the House, to an astonishing 334 to 88 advantage in the House—and that didn’t include 13 from progressive third parties. Times were so tough that voters simply didn’t have the patience for Republicans who even then insisted that the Constitution and tax cuts for the wealthy would “solve” their problems.
That was a moment in time when voters accepted the need for radical change; the Civil War was also used to rationalize the expansion the authority of the federal government. But as bad as the financial meltdown was in 2008 was, it wasn’t “bad” enough or effected enough people to sustain the desire for major “change” with the election of Obama--if a majority even defined "change" as one of public policy. Today some people blame Obama’s supposed failures of “leadership” for the lack of movement on certain pressing problems like the debt “crisis,” but the reality is that in politics it is easier for one to tango than two. Sometimes the effect can be destructive, as we saw when Republicans controlled all three branches of government from 2000 to 2006, but that was to be expected. There is no denying that Obama faces far greater challenges than many of his predecessors--including racial resentment by certain constituencies that has been cynically exploited by Republicans.