A History of Congressional Absurdity

Teaching a class on Congress is not easy. While procedural nuances and institutional norms are sometimes difficult to articulate, the most difficult obstacle I encounter is students’ hatred for American political institutions. More often than not they echo the common charges: Congress is slow, it is corrupt, members of Congress are stupid… you get the idea. So when I teach my legislative process class I often harp on the old adage, “You’re only as strong as your weakest link.” I try to remind students that Congress is a representative institution meant to reflect all parts of American society.  And while people mostly lament Congress’s inability to represent the people, at times it represents them too well.
With that in mind, I thought I’d start a series of absurd congressional moments.  I don’t mean to undermine the integrity of the institution.  Rather, I’d like to add a humorous element to the study of Congress.  Congress, too, can be funny.  At the same time, I hope to illustrate the difficulties of representative institutions.  A fundamental purpose of Congress is to reflect constituent preferences.  And while plenty of the time Congress tackles the difficult and serious issues, there are also times when serving their constituencies initiates a venture into the absurd.

This weeks entry: Reforming the bars?

1961 was a difficult time in American history.  America was locked in the Cold War with the USSR.  President Kennedy attempting to find ways to spur a fairly stagnant economy. However, other problems challenged American culture.  The FDA approved “the pill” a year earlier and introduced a social changes that threatened traditional family values.

However, there were other serious issues before Congress.  Among those threats was drinking.  By 1961, prohibition was an afterthought.  However, how one should drink legal alcohol was another matter altogether.  On August 16th, a measure was proposed to reform drinking laws in the District of Columbia.  Previous to 1961, the law decreed the sitting posture was “essential for the safety and morals of the hard drinker” (Washington Post, August 17th, 1961).  It’s safe to say that standing under the influence presented several moral hazards.

First and foremost, it was believed that “blondes on  bar stools” were responsible for leading faithful men away from their loving wives.  To me this seems to overemphasize the quality of woman sitting on said bar stool, but I digress.  If moral hazards weren’t deterrent enough, the sheer feat of standing and drinking was.  Members of Congress knew all too well the difficulties of standing upright while drinking.  Regardless, in 1961 they were willing to spend several hours reflecting on their previous position.

I never tracked down the final vote on the proper posture for the hard drinker.  If anybody has seen it, please let me know.  For now though, if you visit the nation’s Capitol and decide to stroll into a nearby bar, remember the time and effort Congress put forth to allow you to stand and consume.  Also, please do so carefully.  If not for your safety, do so for your morals.

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