Yesterday, I asked for examples of Congress of passing left-wing legislation that was opposed by 50% or more of the country at the time of its passage. My difficulty in finding examples of this sent me off on a related search for instances of any legislation that Congress passed, and which became law, but were unpopular at the time of their passage.
Much to my surprise, even during the Bush administration, unpopular legislation is rarely passed into law by Congress. I did, however, find a few cases:
Financial Bailout 2008. While public opinion on this matter was a bit mixed, most polls showed the majority of the country opposed to the bill that passed Congress. Certainly, the majority of the country was opposed to the release of the second $350 billion in January. However, defeating that part of the bailout required a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate, so it went through anyway.
Iraq funding in 2003. The country was actually more opposed to war funding back in October of 2003 than they were in 2007, even though support for the war was much higher then. However, as in 2007, it is likely that not passing the money would also have been unpopular. As such, this might not actually work as an example.
NAFTA in 1993. Just before NAFTA was passed in the House, a plurality opposed it, 38%--46. Notably, Perot voters opposed it 63%--26%, which probably made it a serious contributing factor to the Democratic defeat in 1994. It was a good way to anger a large swing group that, only one year earlier, had leaned Democratic.
That's about it. Two of the three examples (the bailout and NAFTA) benefited powerful corporate interests. As such, it seems that the only times Congress is willing to buck popular opinion by passing unpopular legislation into law is when they are told to do so at the behest of their corporate masters. That really tells you a lot about who runs the country. It is also worth noting that both NAFTA and the bailout were passed with unusual bipartisan coalitions.
Further, following both NAFTA and the Wall Street bailout, the party of the President who signed those pieces of legislation ended up suffering catastrophic electoral defeats only a few months later (Democrats in 1994 and Republicans 2008). There were other factors in those two elections, and many of the members of Congress who lost their seats opposed those bills, but the general sentiment against those bills didn't help. Republicans eventually paid a steep political price for Iraq, too.
That catastrophic electoral defeats follow the rare unpopular act of Congress is also probably why, as I discussed repeatedly back in the spring (see some examples here, here, and ) there has been such little change in public spending as a percentage of GDP for the past 35 years. We happen to live in a nation where, with a few exceptions, both raising taxes and cutting spending are unpopular. Don't expect a cautious institution like Congress to go against public opinion, even if public opinion is self-contradictory.
In the extended entry, I discuss why a couple dozen other possibly, and actually, unpopular moments in public policy didn't make the list above.
Unpopular presidential acts not involving Congress. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the government taking ownership over the auto industry (in conjunction with the UAW and Canada), was left-wing and unpopular, but it also didn't pass Congress. George W. Bush did some unpopular things that didn't involve Congress too, such as vetoing stem cell research and a timeline for Iraq withdrawal.
Policies that were actually popular when they passed. Quite a few things that I thought might have been unpopular turned out to have been popular, or at least not unpopular, at the time of passage:
This includes "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which supported by 59% of the country when it was instituted, see page 131).
It includes President Clinton's first budget, even though in the write-up of their own poll Gallup was "surprised" (see page 155) at how few people were bothered by the tax increase (only 52% of 68%, or 35%, were opposed).
It includes warrant-less wiretapping, even though most people thought the government should get a warrant (yeah, I know, that doesn't make any sense).
It includes cap and trade, as the two polls on cap and trade average to show the country split. Then again, it is debatable as to whether or not cap and trade is left-wing.
It even includes the 2001 Bush tax cuts. While the country thought the tax cuts should be smaller, while they believed it benefited the wealthy, and while they thought it would be better to have spent the surplus differently, a majority didn't actually oppose the tax cuts.
Policies for which I couldn't find any useful polling: I couldn't find anything useful, outside of obviously skewed polls, on telecom immunity for FISA.
Stuff that would have been unpopular if people knew about it: The AIG bonus scandal is an excellent example of this, but it (probably) happens pretty much all the time. Expect more occasional outrage when it does, followed by no real reaction from Congress.
To repeat, Congress is pretty cautious. They rarely pass anything that is unpopular, because they usually pay a heavy political price when they do.
Update I can't find any polling on the bankruptcy bill of 2005.