March 26, 2008

LEGACY OF THE 1ST CONGRESS

Guest opinion submitted by Idaho Senator Mike Crapo

Hidden among the granite and steel canyons of the Wall Street financial district of Lower Manhattan in New York City sits a building invisible from more than a few blocks away in any direction. Comparatively diminutive in appearance, its granite columns and ornate architecture call to mind a different age-memories of the birth of our nation. In fact, this building, known as Federal Hall, housed the 1st Congress of the United States of America from March 4, 1789, to March 3, 1791. Nearly 220 years ago on April 30, that body inaugurated George Washington as our first President.

History circles back sometimes, and in interesting ways. Federal Hall sits at the proverbial ground floor of the financial headquarters of the United States. This distinguished old grandfather has witnessed a manifestation of his ideals of individual liberty and human freedom in the robust financial markets that the U.S. is known for today-markets that create opportunity for financial independence and prosperity. It was during the 1st Congress that our Founders enacted historic financial legislation by creating the first national bank.

The financial foundation of the federal government was just one of many issues requiring urgent attention over the course of those two years. Trade and consumption taxes were as contentious and critical then as today: the 1st Congress set the first tariff in the interest of American commodities. And, in its final days, the 1st Congress passed an excise tax that would spawn the famous Whiskey Rebellion three years later.

Our 1st Congress created a census, established the entire federal judiciary, created a government for the western territories south of the Ohio River (the United States stretched to the eastern banks of the Mississippi River at that time) and created the Departments of Foreign Affairs (State), War (Defense) and Treasury. Those first Congressmen and Senators set the first permanent seat of the United States government in Washington, D.C, a move that would not occur until 1800. Most importantly, the 1st Congress set in place framework to protect our liberties and our individual freedoms-the Bill of Rights was enacted during the first Session of the 1st Congress. By comparison, the 1st Congress was far more productive than many later Sessions, the scene of passionate and lively debate over the future of the fledgling nation.

While Congress achieved many historic milestones, setting us firmly on the path to becoming a great nation, some things have definitely changed for the better. Federal Hall had no visitors' gallery-sessions were closed to the public. Now, as you know, there are galleries in both the House and the Senate chambers from which visitors can observe the business conducted every day that the Houses are in session. And today, we have something that our Founders could never have imagined: C-Span operates what amounts to a virtual gallery-we can watch proceedings on our television or computer. This affords an arguably better view than from the Chambers' galleries and, in most cases, much easier than getting to Washington, D.C., through the Capitol security and even maneuvering the steep, narrow aisles of the galleries themselves.

While admittedly not as exciting as sports or a blockbuster movie, I encourage you to tune into C-Span periodically while Congress is in Session. Unlike the days of Federal Hall, we have technology and an openness to the legislative process that better equips participatory democracy. The media is a good information source for many things, but when it comes to politics and the inevitable commentary that comes with political coverage in the media, first-hand observations are the best way to learn about the issues before Congress.

In some ways, we've come a long way from those historic days in Lower Manhattan; in others, only the faces and the locations have changed. Appreciating and preserving America involves embracing the new while adhering to the history-altering ideals richly envisioned two centuries ago.

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