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Seven months ago, as President Joe Biden embarked on what was being called "a long slog of legislating" to push a bold, uncompromising progressive agenda through a wary Congress, I wrote a column dubbing our political era "the age of indecision."

I cautioned: "Don't be surprised if less actually happens ... than you'd expect from all the ... sound and fury."

Now that the tale has been told and "less" has indeed transpired — with the Democrats' centralization of voting rules in ruins on the same rocky Senate shore as their kitchen-sink social-spending plan — it might be useful to reflect a bit further on what history suggests actually can be achieved during an era of indecision, and how it's been managed in the past.

My point back in June was that for some decades American voters have seldom given either party the kind of crushing congressional majorities it takes to enact transformative change.

I marveled at the days when Franklin Roosevelt passed the heart of the New Deal, including Social Security, in 1935, backed by a dominating 322-102 Democratic majority in the House of Representatives — compared to the thin 222-213 advantage Biden's allies enjoy there today.

And I noted that when Lyndon Johnson enacted Medicare in 1965, the Senate contained 68 Democrats, compared with today's 50 (plus tie breaker Kamala Harris).

Joe Biden is no Lyndon Johnson, much less an FDR. But even they would have looked inept trying to pass a supersized partisan agenda with today's slender majorities.

Still, ours is not America's first period of close political competition. Have earlier, narrowly divided congresses ever accomplished big things?

The somewhat surprising answer is yes, but keep in mind that big things are not always good things. Here's a quick, post-Civil War survey:

47th Congress, 1881-83: Divisions were deep and bitter in Gilded Age America, and Congress was seemingly gridlocked, tied 37-37 in the Senate, with Republicans holding a modest 146-134 advantage in the House.

Newly elected President James Garfield was fatally shot by an insane office-seeker after a few months in office, bringing to the White House Chester A. Arthur, a notoriously corrupt New York spoilsman who had been put on the ticket to build an alliance with East Coast political machines.

Things hardly looked promising. But Arthur and the Congress seized the moment to enact one of the most important political reform measures ever, the Pendleton Act, essentially creating the merit-based federal civil service and ending the political patronage "spoils system" that had long fueled dishonesty and retarded efficient administration.

Another momentous piece of legislation, as shameful as the Pendleton Act was worthy, was the Chinese Exclusion Act. Many immigrant groups have suffered discrimination, but this law outlawed all Chinese immigration, a unique injustice that lasted well over half a century.

72nd Congress, 1931-32: A horrifying economic collapse in 1929-30 heralded the Great Depression and brought a political earthquake even before Roosevelt's election in November 1932. In the 1930 midterm vote, previously dominant Republicans lost 50 seats in the House and five in the Senate, producing a virtual tie in both chambers.

Republican President Herbert Hoover and the shaken Congress responded by enacting a striking array of emergency economic measures that constituted a tentative start on the New Deal FDR would kick into high gear in 1933.

Among the laws passed in 1931-32 were a significant tax increase (perhaps doubtful policy at such a moment, but dramatic); the first Glass-Steagall Act, beginning banking reform; the Reconstruction Finance and Home Loan Bank acts to stimulate lending; the Norris-LaGuardia Act, an early step supporting unions, and more. Roosevelt and his huge majorities would greatly expand all these programs and add many others.

83rd and 84th Congresses, 1953-57: World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower ended a generation of Democratic domination in Washington in 1952. During his first four-year term, Senate control was always in a virtual tie while the parties traded modest majorities in the House.

Results included two landmark infrastructure bills — the Interstate Highways Act in 1956 and the St. Lawrence Seaway Act in 1954.

Less admirably, 1954 also brought the Communist Control Act, which outlawed the Communist Party and was later ruled unconstitutional. On the other hand, the Senate that same year censured Wisconsin's red-baiting Joe McCarthy and ended his persecutions.

Notably, the beginning of the end came for another scourge with passage of the Polio Vaccination Assistance Act in 1955, funding shots for some 30 million American children that year alone.

107th Congress, 2001-2003: A cloud of suspicion and claims of illegitimacy followed Republican George W. Bush into the White House after the disputed Florida recount of 2000. The Senate was evenly split and the GOP House majority was small. But especially in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, an array of sweeping legislation was enacted.

Included was a big tax cut; the No Child Left Behind education reform, and the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform. Following 9/11 came dramatic and, in time, highly controversial measures including the Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Act and, in 2002, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq.

In retrospect, most of this seems of ambiguous value.

• • •

And so it goes. One clear lesson from this look back is that it's not at all impossible for a closely divided Congress to make laws with real consequences — and that's just the chance we take.

But the kinds of big things divided congresses do best seem to involve lots of steel and concrete, reforms addressing long festering problems, and emergency steps to meet immediate crises.

Come to think of it, 2021's major achievements (obscured by the aforementioned sound and fury and futile overreaching) were a huge pandemic rescue package and ample infrastructure funding — traditional fare for polarized times.

More focus on similarly unifying policy that actually has broad support, maybe including limited election reforms commanding bipartisan interest (like clarifying the process for certifying Electoral College votes) might bring more results than we've seen lately.

D.J. Tice is at