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  • Short-Term Goals and Long-Term Effects:The Mongrel Tariff and the Creation of the Special Rule in the U.S. House
  • Scott A. Hendrickson (bio) and Jason M. Roberts (bio)

Tariff policy dominated congressional politics for much of the nineteenth century. Because duties on imports were the primary source of revenue for the federal government, tariff policy was reconsidered frequently as the economic fortunes of the country waxed and waned. The frequent, high-stakes nature of tariff policy not only led to fierce debates in Congress—pitting proponents of free trade against proponents of protective tariffs—but also inspired some of the most enduring institutional features of Congress.

Among the more interesting episodes in this long-running story occurred in the closing hours of the 47th Congress. On March 3, 1883, a lame-duck Congress passed, and President Chester A. Arthur signed into law, the Tariff Act of 1883. The act made numerous changes in the customs duties assessable against foreign goods imported into the United States1—raising duties on some goods while lowering duties on other goods. In the aggregate, the act produced a slight net decrease in customs duties and had little, if any, perceptible effect on the manner in which business in the U.S. was conducted.2 Despite strong, preexisting public sentiment in favor of major reforms (reductions) to the tariff rates and an overhaul of the tariff system in general,3 the net effect of the reform was minimal.4 In short, the act did very little of what most of the actors in the debate wanted and no one wanted to claim ownership of it—leading to it being labeled the “Mongrel Tariff.”

This article explains why Congress failed to adhere to public sentiment for major tariff reform. Our explanation is a familiar one—we show how [End Page 318] endogenously created institutions interacted with the policy preferences of key members to produce a policy outcome that few seemed to favor.5 Specifically, we focus on the use and creation of institutional rules by political actors to achieve short-term goals aligned with their policy preferences.6 In the case of the Mongrel Tariff, the achievement of those short-term goals had a long-lasting and continuing effect. It led to the creation of the one of the most enduring features of the House of Representatives—the special rule.7

In what follows, we describe how party leaders manipulated the congressional agenda to limit the vote choices available to individual members of Congress and how these limitations directly affected the policy outcome. We also present information on both party interests and the perceived effects the act was expected to have on congressional constituencies to help us explain the behavior of members of Congress on votes relating to it. We find that a mix of party and constituency interests drove members’ voting decisions on the bill. However, protectionists leaders in both chambers were able to manipulate the order of votes in such a way as to secure an outcome producing less tariff reform than would have been desired by the public and many serving in the Congress.

the nineteenth century and the tariff

Throughout the nineteenth century, tariffs on imported goods were the primary source of revenue for the U.S. government. As a result, Congress frequently altered tariff rates—often in response to the economic fortunes (or misfortunes) of the country during the preceding years. For example, Congress lowered tariff rates in 1846, 1857, and 1872 in response to revenue overflows and increased tariff rates in 1842, 1861, 1864, and 1875 in response to revenue shortfalls.8

Because of its important role in and effect on the American economy, tariff policy was frequently a source of political debate and conflict between the parties. Although this debate and conflict raised numerous issues, the underlying concern was often a debate between protectionism and free trade. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Republican party, with its power base centered in northern manufacturing interests, favored a protectionist tariff system designed to protect and promote American commercial interests (such as manufacturing) from foreign competition.9 In contrast, the Democratic Party, with its power base...


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