The U.S. Capitol (2011).
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antecedent / power

The New Congress and the History of Governing by a House Divided

What do the results of the 2018 midterms portend for the next two years?
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Two other historic midterm setbacks for the party in power support a forecast for more combative politics during the next two years. They suggest that a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives can undertake investigations of the Republican administration that could bring a presidency to a halt.

In the fall of 1858, Republicans secured control of the House of Representatives. They quickly went to work to investigate the wrongdoings of James Buchanan’s already stumbling presidency.

The investigation scrutinized allegations that Buchanan and members of his administration had bribed Democrats with either money or patronage jobs. Those bribes were to ensure the success of administration policies to admit Kansas to the union as a slave state and to reward Democratic supporters with government contracts.

The committee didn’t gather sufficient evidence to secure Buchanan’s impeachment. But it uncovered enough wrongdoing to damage his presidency as well as the Democratic Party in a presidential election year – the 1860 election that resulted in Republican Abraham Lincoln’s victory.

Sixteen years later, the Democrats got their revenge when they regained control of the House in the midterm elections of 1874.

Their electoral victory, Democrats believed, hinged on a combination of unfortunate elements that hurt Republicans.

Those elements included the onset of an economic depression in 1873, revelations of corrupt behavior among leading congressional Republicans, and the growing unpopularity of Reconstruction. Southern Democrats also benefited from efforts to suppress black political participation through violence and intimidation.

The Democratic triumph proved the death knell for Republican efforts to promote Reconstruction through federal legislation, especially to secure the protection of black rights.

Vigorously using the power to launch investigations, Democrats struck telling blows against Ulysses S. Grant’s administration.

They exposed the corrupt behavior of several cabinet members, notably Secretary of War William Belknap, who was charged with accepting kickbacks from holders of frontier trading posts. The House impeached Belknap, who escaped conviction only because he had already resigned.

Other House investigations also damaged the reputations of Grant’s brother Orvil, who was also involved in accepting kickbacks for trading post licenses, and Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson, who was accused of improper dealing with shipbuilding contracts.

Adding to Grant’s woes was the fact that his own secretary of the treasury had been pursuing the prosecution of the president’s private secretary for revenue fraud. Grant retired from office with a reputation for presiding over a cesspool of corruption rarely seen in our nation’s history.

Both parties ran reform candidates in 1876, with the victorious Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, pledging to end federal support for black voting rights in the South.
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