According to the most recent polling data, the American public's approval of Congress stands at a dismal 21 percent. Almost four times as many people disapprove of the job it's doing.
That's par for the course in recent decades. It's the major reason the Washington sausage grinder earns so little praise. To be fair, though, let's review an occasion when lawmakers got something right. I'm prompted to share this story now because its lessons are especially relevant considering today's concerns about rising price inflation. The year was 1875.
The Civil War (1861-65) produced a disastrous hyperinflation in the Confederacy and considerable currency depreciation of paper greenbacks in the North as well. A decade after Appomattox, Congress still had not made good on its promise to make its paper money redeemable in gold. But in January 1875, alarmed by the rise of pro-inflation agitators (the "greenbackers," later to become "silverites"), Congress passed the Specie Payment Resumption Act, which President Ulysses S. Grant later signed into law.
Politicians often break their promises, and this was yet another opportunity to do so. Congress could have declared, "We don't have the gold necessary to honor our pledge, so we'll pay gold for greenbacks at 50 cents on the dollar." But lawmakers chose to be honest for once, and to meet their obligations fully. The Act provided that all paper greenbacks would be redeemable on demand "at par" (100 percent of the earlier promise), beginning on January 1, 1879.
When Rutherford B. Hayes succeeded Grant as President in March 1877, he knew his administration had less than two years to prepare the Treasury and the nation's banks for redemption. He and his Treasury officials believed the best way to avoid a run on the banks in January 1879 was to shore up the country's gold reserves. They did so largely by selling bonds to Europeans in exchange for gold.