10 of the Most Controversial Laws Ever Passed

Major legislation must pass through US Congress.
Major legislation must pass through US Congress.

Whenever major legislation passes through the US Congress and is sent to the President to be signed into law, it almost never has 100% support from both major political parties (Democrats and Republicans). Generally speaking, however, at least some people from both parties vote to approve a bill. In some cases, however, a bill is so hotly contested that it has only minimal support from the opposing party and is passed by only the supporting party, resulting in a voting gap. This article takes a closer look at 10 of the most controversial and divisive laws ever passed by the Congress.

10. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act - 2010

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 received 87% support from Democrats in the House of Representatives and 100% support from Democrats in the Senate. Not a single Republican voted for this act, making it the first law to pass with 0% support from the opposing party in the last century.

This law requires every citizen and resident of the US to have health insurance. It prohibits insurance companies from charging different rates based on sex or health condition of enrollees and makes it illegal for insurance to refuse payment based on pre-existing health conditions. Republicans initially opposed the idea of universal health care under the argument that it would encourage “freeloading”, that people would benefit from the new system without working or paying taxes to support it. Later, the Republican party opposed the mandate aspect of the law (that they had previously supported), which required everybody to buy into an insurance plan. They claimed the mandate unconstitutional. This law continues to be controversial today.

9. Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act - 2001

The Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 was passed by 100% of House Republicans, 96% of Senate Republicans, 15% of House Democrats, and 28% of Senate Democrats.

This law was controversial because it cut taxes by $1.35 trillion over a 10-year plan with progressive changes, increasing the federal deficit. These tax cuts primarily benefited the wealthiest individuals in the country. The law included a provision that would restore the previous tax amounts after the 10 years in order to prevent Senators from blocking the law under the Byrd Rule, which gives this blocking power to Senators when legislation would increase the federal deficit after 10 years.

8. Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act - 1996

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 was passed by the following votes: House Republicans (99%), Senate Republican (100%), House Democrats (50%), and Senate Democrats (54%).

This law was criticized by Democrats because of its strict welfare reform policies, which left it more difficult for those living in poverty to access public assistance. Additionally, it required welfare recipients to be employed in order to receive benefits for a limited amount of time. This work requirement pushed people into low wage positions and made difficult for them to afford basic costs of living.

7. Balance Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act - 1985

The Balance Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 was passed by a majority of Congressional Republicans. Only 48% of House Democrats and 50% of Senate Democrats were in support of this law.

This law was highly controversial because it enacted the first set of guidelines to restrain federal government spending in an attempt to lower the national deficit. It set a progressively decreasing deficit limit over a 5 year period and backed this with mandated budget cuts should the deficit limits not be met. Politicians united in their criticisms and concerns over which public departments would receive budget cuts. Some programs, like Social Security, were protected against cuts before the law was enacted.

6. Economic Recovery Tax Act - 1981

The Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 had a 44% voting gap in the House (99% Republicans, 44% Democrats) and a 19% gap in the Senate (98% Republicans, 78% Democrats).

This law is known as a Reagan-era tax reform. It reduced individual income taxes, estate taxes, and business taxes. The bill faced heavy criticism in Congress because it benefited the wealthiest of taxpayers. For example, the top income bracket received a tax reduction from 70% to 50% over 3 years, while the bottom income bracket was only reduced from 14% to 11%. After this act became law, the federal deficit increased significantly, resulting in an economic recession with interest rate increasing from 12% to over 20%.

5. Social Security Amendments - 1965

The Social Security Amendments of 1965 were backed by Congressional Democrats. This bill was passed in the House with 86% Democratic support and only 47% Republican support. In the Senate, 89% of Democrats voted in favor of the bill and only 48% of Republicans did the same.

These amendments created the Medicare and Medicaid programs, which provide health care to senior citizens (people over 65 years of age) and families living in poverty. These 2 programs were the source of controversy between the two political parties because of the perceived burden it would have on the federal budget.

4. Civil Rights Act - 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed with a 19% voting gap in the House (61% Democrats, and 80% Republicans) and a 13% voting gap in the Senate (69% Democrats, 82% Republicans).

This law re-enforced and protected certain constitutional rights, including the right to vote, to a public education, to employment, to private services, and to public assistance programs. It prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, color, and nationality. The Civil Rights Act was controversial for many reasons, one of which was that the federal government would now have the power to require private business owners to provide services to all individuals.

3. Securities Exchange Act - 1934

The Securities Exchange Act of 1934 was widely supported by Democrats, while only 31% of House Republicans and 58% of Senate Republicans voted in favor of this law.

This Act established the Securities Exchange Commission, which is responsible for establishing the rules and regulations concerning tradable financial assets (also known as securities). Additionally, this Act put further regulations on the aftermarket of previously sold stocks, bonds, and other financial assets. It was enacted in response to the Securities Act of 1933, which regulated the primary financial securities market.

2. Tariff Act - 1930

The Tariff Act of 1930 pitted Republicans against Democrats in a law that was passed with over 90% Republican support and less than 25% Democratic support.

This Act increased the cost of tariffs on tens of thousands of imported products. These increased taxes were met with similar legislation passed internationally, which raised the tariff costs of imported American goods. This Act and the international response resulted in decreased imports and exports in the US and is believed to be one of the primary factors that led to the Great Depression. Before the Tariff Act was passed, over 1,000 economists petitioned the government against it.

1. Revenue Act - 1913

The Revenue Act of 1913 was one of the most controversial laws of the early 20th century. Its voting gap was not exceeded until the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. The Revenue Act received the following Congressional votes: House Democrats (98%), House Republicans (5%), Senate Democrats (94%), and Senate Republicans (12%).

This law was unpopular because it reestablished the federal income tax, after changes to the 16th Amendment, in order to compensate for its reduction of import tariffs (from 40% to 25%). The individual income tax was set to 1% of married household incomes over $4,000 and 1% of single household incomes over $3,000. An additional 1% tax was set for incomes over $20,000, which increased progressively.


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