THE BLOG
05/08/2013 04:29 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2013

Congressional Contrarians Pay a Political Price for Their Dissent, but Are Often Vindicated by History

Throughout American history there have been many instances of resolutions passing the U.S. Congress almost unanimously but for a few dissenting votes, occasionally even a single vote. While viewed as mavericks in their own time, these lone voters have sometimes been vindicated by history, despite the contemporaneous political fallout.

In 1937, U.S. Representative Maury Maverick (D-TX) was the only Southern Democrat to vote for federal legislation disallowing lynching. Congressman Maverick stated: "I think it's time that the South as well as the North condemn lynching." This proved to be a politically lethal statement for a Southerner to make at the time. Despite the fact that history vindicated Maverick's once unpopular position on this issue, his position did not sit well within his congressional district and he was voted out of office in the primary election.

Interestingly, independence is apparently in Maury Maverick's gene pool. His grandfather was cattle rancher Samuel Maverick, who, because of his independent nature, caused Texans to label anyone who was independent-minded as a "maverick."

In 1964, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to give President Lyndon B. Johnson a blank check to pursue military action in Southeast Asia. This abdication of Congressional authority allowed the president to escalate forces in Vietnam without coming before the U.S. Congress. The House passed the resolution without a solitary dissenting vote. As the drumbeat for war grew louder, two U.S. senators resisted the march to war, voting against the resolution. Wayne Morse (D-OR) admonished his colleagues for not officially declaring war as is mandated in the U.S. Constitution. Morse said: "I believe that within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress that is now about to make such an historic mistake." The other dissenter was Ernest Gruening (D-AK) who admonished that the resolution would result in the nation: "sending our American boys into combat in a war in which we have no business, which is not our war, into which we have been misguidedly drawn." This view is now mainstream thinking when Americans look back at the Vietnam War. However, at the time, both senators were marginalized.

After the incalculable loss of blood and treasure in Vietnam, many members of Congress tried to atone for their votes for the Gulf or Tonkin Resolution. U.S. Representative Tip O'Neal (D-MA) later said that his vote for the resolution was the only vote he "regretted." He said that while he had doubts at the time, he also believed that on national security matters he must support the president.

Sometimes standing alone can even result in death threats to a member of Congress. In 2001, after the September 11 hijackings, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution granting the president the authority "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons." At the time, support for an invasion of Afghanistan (whose government was harboring al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden) was widely popular in the U.S. The only member of the U.S. Congress to vote against the resolution was U.S. Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA). Few Americans had analyzed the potential unintended consequences of giving the President the authority to send a secular Army into a Muslim nation, and the attendant blowback. In fact, the House approved the resolution after just five hours of debate on the floor. Lee stated at the time: "At least minimally, we should be able to know which nation we're planning to attack and have some input into that. We should know what the exit strategy is." Because of that vote, she received death threats, and the Capital Police Department dispatched officers to provide her with 24-hour protection. Today, the war in Afghanistan continues, and is the longest war in U.S. history. In addition, U.S. presence in Afghanistan continues to act as a recruiting magnet for al Qaeda and their coefficients.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 hijackings, the U.S. Congress passed the U.S.A. Patriot Act. Once again, the nation rallied around its leaders, and had little forbearance for talk of civil liberties. Ironically, the legislation was not even available for members of the U.S. Congress to read prior to voting on it. The only dissenting vote in the U.S. Senate was Russell Feingold (D-WI). While Feingold supported many provisions of the Act, he objected to the greatly expanded surveillance power of the federal government. Though it received de minimis attention at the time, the Act provided law enforcement with the authority to enter a private residence without receiving the permission of the homeowner. While the provision was placed in the legislation under the auspices of fighting terrorism, the preponderant use of these warrants has been applied to unrelated drug cases. Today, certain provisions of The Patriot Act are opposed across the political spectrum, and Feingold's position is no longer on the fringe.

In 2012, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution imposing harsh sanctions upon Iran. The sanctions were sold to the American people as a way to destabilize the Iranian regime and to force Iran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in its investigation of an alleged nuclear program. Only six members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted against the resolution. They were U.S. Representatives Justin Amash (R-MI), John Duncan (R-TN), Tim Johnson (R-Ill), Walter Jones (R-NC) Ron Paul (R-TX) and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH).

The sanctions are debilitating Iran's economy. The nation's currency, called the rial, has dropped about 80 percent in value, making it hard for Iranians to procure necessities. Unfortunately, the sanctions provide an expedient scapegoat for the Iranian government: They can blame the U.S. Government for their economic problems. Moreover, the sanctions can inadvertently be providing an additional recruiting magnet for al-Qaeda. In the end, it is possible that the unpopular votes cast by the aforementioned U.S. House members will be vindicated over time.

It is always easy to vote with the majority, especially when the vote is near unanimous. The few dissenters often suffer political heat and are excoriated and ridiculed as gadfly's in the political process, and are usually marginalized as well. However, sometimes history has proven that these dissenters had great foresight. As 1952 and 1956 Democratic presidential nominee Adlai E. Stevenson reminds us: "All progress has resulted from people who took unpopular positions."