Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Episode 208: Act of Congress

This week Shauna and Dan go back to school to learn a history of the United States legislative bodies to help understand the idiomatic phrase, Act of Congress. Spoiler: The USA is predictable throughout its entire history so far.  #BunnyTrails

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 208: Act of Congress
Record Date: October 1, 2023
Air Date: October 4, 2023


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Have you ever tried to do something despite it taking forever. Like, you are trying to get something done but it just takes forever to do it. You might say it takes an act of congress.


Act of Congress, according to Farlex Dictionary of Idioms, means:

That which is extremely difficult to achieve or requires a large amount of effort or patience to enact.
End Quote

The primary focus in this phrase is the word Congress. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word Congress has meant “the action of coming together” since the early 1500s.

And there have been many congresses in English language history, but our idiomatic phrase appears to come from the United States of America and its legislative body.

Congress is a governmental body of the United States of America which has two components, the Senate and the House. Here’s a snippet from the United State’s Senate defining Acts of Congress from a literal perspective:

When a bill is passed in identical form by both the Senate and the House, it is sent to the president for his signature.  If the president signs the bill, it becomes a law.  Laws are also known as Acts of Congress.
End Quote

But how did Congress come about? Let’s do a little history lesson.

The Continental Congress
We’ll start with the United State’s Department of State Office of the Historian and their Milestone Documents talking about the First Continental Congress.

In 1774, the British Parliament passed a series of laws collectively known as the Intolerable Acts, with the intent to suppress unrest in colonial Boston by closing the port and placing it under martial law. In response, colonial protestors led by a group called the Sons of Liberty issued a call for a boycott. Merchant communities were reluctant to participate in such a boycott unless there were mutually agreed upon terms and a means to enforce the boycott’s provisions. Spurred by local pressure groups, colonial legislatures empowered delegates to attend a Continental Congress which would set terms for a boycott. The colony of Connecticut was the first to respond.
Now moving to the Second Continental Congress
By the time Congress met again, (in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775) war was already underway, and thus the delegates to the Second Continental Congress formed the Continental Army and dispatched George Washington to Massachusetts as its commander. Meanwhile, Congress drafted the Olive Branch Petition, which attempted to suggest means of resolving disputes between the colonies and Great Britain. Congress sent the petition to King George III on July 8, but he refused to receive it.

As British authority crumbled in the colonies, the Continental Congress effectively took over as the de facto national government, thereby exceeding the initial authority granted to it by the individual colonial governments. However, the local groups that had formed to enforce the colonial boycott continued to support the Congress. The Second Congress continued to meet until March 1, 1781, when the Articles of Confederation that established a new national government for the United States took effect.
End Quote

So the first act of the continental congress was… to boycott something. This seems, on the whole, pretty American so far.

The first act of the second continental congress was… to form an army. And the United States is still known for its military, so we’re still on point so far.

Articles of Confederation

To follow up on the Articles of Confederations, we’ll move back to another article in the Office of the Historians Milestone Documents:

The Articles of Confederation were adopted by the Continental Congress on November 15, 1777. This document served as the United States' first constitution. It was in force from March 1, 1781, until 1789 when the present-day Constitution went into effect.

This "first constitution of the United States" established a "league of friendship" for the 13 sovereign and independent states. Each state retained "every Power...which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States. The Articles of Confederation also outlined a Congress with representation not based on population – each state would have one vote in Congress.

Ratification by all 13 states was necessary to set the Confederation into motion. Because of disputes over representation, voting, and the western lands claimed by some states, ratification was delayed. When Maryland ratified it on March 1, 1781, the Congress of the Confederation came into being.
End Quote

Third Continental Congress
For insight into the Third Continental Congress, which served under the Articles of Confederation, we’ll look at a short piece by This one is not such a cheery history.

The Confederation Congress, as many historians refer to it, had very limited powers compared with the U.S. Congress we have today. The Confederation Congress couldn’t tax Americans and, in many cases, needed nine of the 13 states to approve legislation before a bill could pass.

This Confederation Congress did make its mark, though. It chartered the first U.S. bank; and more significantly, it called for the seizure of Native land through measures like the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

“The most consequential actions of the Confederation Congress were the land ordinances of the 1780s,” says Irvin. “These ordinances encouraged the westward migration of European Americans, who seized lands inhabited by Indigenous peoples, made war against them and ultimately lobbied for their forcible removal.”

Members who served terms on the Confederation Congress included James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who were also two of the 55 delegates that attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. The members of that convention drafted a new constitution that, when it became law in 1789, replaced the Articles of Confederation and disbanded the Confederation Congress, replacing it with the U.S. Congress.
End Quote


First Federal Congress
To pick up the history of the Congress as we know it today, we’ll jump to

The Congress of the United States established by the new Constitution met for the first time at New York City’s Federal Hall on March 4, 1789. It is arguably the most important Congress in U.S. history. To this new legislature fell the responsibility of passing all the legislation needed to implement the new system, solving the difficult political questions left by the Constitutional Convention, setting up the rules and procedures of the House and Senate, and establishing the roles of its officers such as Speaker of the House and President of the Senate.

Most actions of the First Congress broke new ground. The first law passed set oaths of office not only for Congress but for state legislators, Federal executive officers, and state and Federal judges.
End Quote

So the first act of the current form of Congress in the United States was to get really specific about processes and setting the letter of law. Only slightly less metaphorical than the boycott and the army of the first two congresses, respectively, but still I think part of our current existence as a Country.

So why would an Act of Congress be construed to be something difficult and tedious? Well that started at the very beginning of the current congress, with Representative James Madison, who would go on to be the USA’s 4th president, writing to fellow Constitutional Convention member Edmund Randolph, who would go on to be the USA’s 2nd Secretary of State, writing in 1789:

Scarcely a day passes without some striking evidence of the delays and perplexities springing merely from the want of precedents.
End Quote
Representative James Madison to Edmund Randolph, May 31, 1789

So even from the very beginning, the work of the US Congress was slow and sometimes confusing. But it wasn’t until the 1900s before we really saw a figurative usage of “acts of congress” start to take shape in the written word.

Which leads us to some examples of our phrase. I’ll be the first to say I do not expect that this is the first attestation of the phrase as a figurative. I’m sure, based on Madison’s description, the phrase was used in some way shortly after Congress was founded. But not all slang usages were written down in works that have been digitized or otherwise have survived the centuries. So I’ll turn to the first example I was able to find.

This comes from the book In Ports Afar by Edwin Allison Schell, published in 1914.

We found ourselves wishing that the Chinese gambling game called fan-tan, that was carried on incessantly, could be prohibited. The American officers say that they could not ship a Chinese crew if it were forbidden to gamble. And it is apparent that so long as Americans by the hundreds risk their money on the game it would take an act of Congress to end it.
End Quote

This next one is from The Wide World Magazine in a story called The Man Who Turned Thief by Eugene Darling, part VI, conclusion. This specific story was published sometime between November 1922 and April 1923. I suspect early 1923, but the work I reviewed wasn’t super clear on the date.

“His name is Ryan, and he is one of the detectives who tried to frame me up the other day.”
Minnie was interested, and stared at the man defiantly. “He looks the part,” she said, finally.
“He certainly does, and acts it, too.” replied Keene. “He still insists that I took the money. It would take an act of Congress, I guess, to make him change his mind.”
End Quote

Here’s another, this is from the work Speedy by Russell Holman, published in 1928.

“This is very serious. I have to see him at once.”
“We’ll he ain’t in,” said the boy. “And if he was it would take an act of congress to get to him today”
“Then I’ll wait”, insisted the girl.
End Quote

This next one is from the comics section of The Midland Journal out of Rising Sun, Maryland, 8 February 1935. It is a quick conversation joke:

Bingo: In Russia children are brought up by the State
Stingo: Well, it would take an act of congress to do anything with mine.
End Quote

Once we start seeing the phrase in jokes, you can be sure it has spread to many in the language.

There’s more to come on this phrase, but first I want to take a quick break to say thanks to our sponsors.

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Modern Uses

And as a note to how quickly this phrase has spread I found over 50 examples of the phrase “literal act of congress” in a quick search of Google Books, highlighting the need to be clear the author wasn’t being figurative with the language. These books spanned genre, from a 1998 Environmental Impact Statement about the Gifford Pinchot National Forest the 2006 civil war novel True Colors by Erin Rainwater to Andrew Vaillencourt’s 2020 futuristic sci-fi novel, Sullivan’s Gift, and the 2022 academic work Leadership In Nursing Practice: The Intersection of Innovation and Teamwork in Healthcare Systems by Daniel Weberg and Kara Mangold.
It’s clear from this spread that

1967 Song
We’ll kick off with a song by Buck Owens, first released in 1967. Adios, Farewell, Goodbye, Good Luck, So Long is off the album Buck Owens and His Buckaroos in Japan!

Well I guess I'll have to get an act of congress
To convince you that our love affair's all through
Every time you snap your fingers I come running
But that's all over now I'm sick and tired of you
End Quote

The song was covered in 1970 by Buddy Alan, 1972 by Susan Raye, and 2001 by The Hot Rod Honeys.

2005 Song
The Garfield El is a 2005 song by the Fiery Furnaces, a US based indie-rock band. Here’s a sample from one of the verses:

Late, by act of Congress and blue all the way to Forest Park
And this ribbon spinning and computer color
Into a public transport for everyone to hear
And get on track
And back to my lost love
End Quote

Musical Group
I’ll wrap us up with Act of Congress, an acoustic americana group from Birmingham, Alabama. From their website…

The organic sound of Act of Congress is consistently voted one of the "Must See Live Acts of Alabama." 

AOC has completed five tours as U.S. Cultural Ambassadors, led by the U.S. State Department. AOC has performed in countries including Thailand, Oman, Palau, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Philippines, Timor Leste, Bali, Liberia, and Jordan. Highlights from recent trips include independence day entertainment for Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the Liberian government, and a feature performance at Jordan's celebrated Jerash festival.
End Quote

The name is figurative, coming from the difficulties in getting the members together for practice given their hectic schedules. Chris Griffin, a founding member of the group laughed about the name, saying, “If we knew we would be together this long, we would’ve changed the name”.

And I’ll link to a music video featuring a medley of the songs they do at weddings called Crazy Wedding Reception Montage.

If you were wondering, there is a British slang term, Act of Parliament, that has been around since the 1700s. But it has to do with free beer. Because of course it does. We’ll talk more about that in our Behind the Scenes, available to all Patrons every Friday at

Wrap Up
This phrase is one I’ve used before and will probably use again. The older I get, the less funny the inability of the United States Congress to do basic governance tasks like fund the government gets and the more sad and frustrating it becomes. Of course, as James Madison noted, it has been this way since the US Congress first started meeting. And I don’t anticipate it changing anytime soon. So I suspect we’ll continue to see “Act of Congress” used as a figurative stand-in for a slow and arduous task for decades to come.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us at, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons, What is your favorite type of movie?

Science Fiction won the day with 60% of the vote. Action movies came in second with another 20% of the vote. The rest were spread around.

Emily made sure the record represented musicals. And Jan voted for all Godzilla movies, except the 1998 one.


Mary expounded a bit, saying:

I love so many movies. The best of all time is still Princess Bride, but a safe go for me is sci-fi. I first started loving it when I was a kid watching StarTrek. The first movie I saw was 2001 A Space Odyssey. There are just so many great quotes from that film. My next love was Planet of the Apes. There were so many wonderful experiences to follow. Star Wars, Star Trek, Mars Attacks, Back to the Future… I loved Serenity as well and Galaxy Quest is too much fun. Let’s not forget Guardians of the Galaxy. The quirkier, the better and don’t get me started on Marvel and Transformers.
End Quote

I’m not really a movie person, but on the occasion I watch one I prefer things that are funny and not real life. So I like over-the-top action comedies and witty sci fi movies. I loved True Lies, Serenity, Galaxy Quest, Top Secret, and almost every parody movie with Leslie Nielsen.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

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