It’s always been a rich man’s Congress

On Friday, Oregon senator Jeff Merkley begged Kentucky senator Jim Bunning to drop his one-man opposition to the extension of unemployment benefits for over a million Americans. Bunning's response? "Tough shit." He also complained that because the Senate would not agree to drop debating an extension and adjourn, "I have missed the Kentucky-South Carolina game that started at 9:00."

You'd might think that this would be the most callous, out-of-touch comment ever uttered in Congress, but that's not so. Probably not by a long shot. Consider this exchange between a factory worker and a Senator in the early 1880s, during a Senate investigation into the relations between labor and capital:

Senator Blair: Why do you not go West on a farm?

Thomas O'Donnell: How could I go, walk it?

Senator Blair: Well, I want to know why you do not go West on a $2,000 farm, or take up a homestead and break it and work it up, and then have it for yourself and your family?

Thomas O'Donnell: I can't see how I could get out West. I have got nothing to go with.

Senator Blair: It would not cost you over $1,500.

Thomas O'Donnell: Well, I never saw over a $20 bill, and that is when I have been getting a month's pay at once. If someone would give $1,500, I will go...

In his day, Blair was one of the senators most concerned with the welfare and conditions of American workers.

(Source: Garraty, John A. Editor. Labor and Capital in the Gilded Age. Boston: Little Brown And Company, 1968.)