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Five Times Congress Took Major Action in an Election Year

Appearing on the Sunday morning talk shows ahead of last night’s State of the Union address, senior aides to President Obama said that the White House would pursue a number of executive actions in 2014. The plan is a sign of the president’s willingness to achieve his agenda without waiting on Congress, which seems unable to overcome partisan differences on most policy issues. However, by overusing executive action, the president could further antagonize congressional Republicans and therefore exacerbate an already tense relationship.

Nonetheless, all hope isn’t lost for meaningful, bipartisan action in the coming year. Here are five occasions in the last half-century in which Democrats and Republicans managed to pass major legislation in an election year. In each case, both sides came together and compromised for the good of the country.

Civil Rights Act, 1964

Civil Rights Act
July 2, 1964: President Lyndon Johnson at the signing of the Civil Rights Act (credit: Encyclopedia Britannica)

When the Civil Rights Act passed the House in February 1964 and came to the floor of the Senate the following month, a bloc of senators from the South launched a filibuster to block its passage. With the help of Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL), 27 Republicans joined 44 Democrats to end debate after two months of arguments. The bill passed the Senate on June 19, 1964.

Tax Reform Act, 1986

Tax Reform Act of 1986
October 22, 1986: President Ronald Reagan signs the Tax Reform Act of 1986 into law

The Tax Reform Act of 1986 remains the largest overhaul of the tax code in post-World War II America. The legislation reduced the number of tax brackets, lowered the top income tax rate from 50 to 28 percent and closed numerous loopholes.

Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990

July 26, 1990: President George H.W. Bush at the signing of the Americans with Disability Act (credit:

The Americans with Disabilities Act made it illegal to discriminate against an individual because of a mental or physical disability. The bill reported out of the conference committee received significant support from both parties, passing the House 377-28 and the Senate 91-6. Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) co-founders and former Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole (R-KS) and George Mitchell (D-ME) were early supporters of the law.

Welfare Reform, 1996

Welfare Reform
President Bill Clinton (credit: The Washington Post)

Despite a bitterly divided government, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed into law legislation enacting sweeping changes to the nation’s welfare system. The bill, which garnered more than 300 votes in the House and nearly 80 in the Senate, coupled Republican priorities like work requirements and child support enforcement with Democratic goals like increased spending on education and child care.

Help America Vote Act, 2002

Passed in part because of the voting controversies surrounding the 2000 presidential election, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 created the Election Assistance Commission to serve as the authority for election administration information. In addition, the law provides funding for states to upgrade voting systems and set minimum standards for election administration. The legislation won 357 votes in the House and 92 in the Senate.

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2014-01-29 00:00:00
History demonstrates that 2014 doesn’t have to be a lost year for immigration reform, health care cost containment or housing finance reform


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