History of Congress and the Capitol
This is the story of one of the world's great experiments in government by the people.
For more than two centuries, a new Congress has convened every two years following elections that determine all the seats in the House and one-third of those in the Senate. While the individuals change, the institution has endured-through civil and world wars, waves of immigration and great migrations, and continuous social and technological change.
The Congress we know today was created after the failure of a government under the Articles of Confederation, which left most powers to the states. In 1787, a convention of specially selected delegates proposed a new constitution that strengthened the national government and established a representative branch composed of a House and Senate.
From the beginning, the two bodies of Congress were meant to be different, yet interdependent. James Madison said they would be "as little connected with each other, as the nature of their common functions, and their common dependence on society, will admit." As a result, the House and Senate have different rules, traditions, and cultures. Yet in their shared responsibilities they function as the nation's single lawmaking body.
Most Americans greeted the 20th century with optimism. The early decades saw economic growth and the expansion of democracy as women gained the vote. But two world wars, the Great Depression, and the nuclear age later tested such confidence.
World War I brought a new global perspective. It shifted attention from economic growth and expanding democratic institutions at home to the nation’s place in the larger world. When the war ended in 1918, Congress debated America’s role in global peacekeeping. Disputes with the president, and a postwar absence of public support for further international involvement, kept the Senate from approving U.S. participation in the League of Nations. After the devastation of World War II, this view changed, and Congress supported the establishment of the United Nations and joint mutual defense organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. At home, Congress addressed the crisis of the Great Depression, beginning with an outpouring of economic recovery legislation in the first 100 days of its 1933 session.
Throughout these great transformations, the Capitol itself remained unchanged—although its campus grew with the addition of six new buildings.
Representing a Changing Nation
While foreign affairs tugged at America's attention, the House remained focused on the home front. Early in the century, many Midwestern Populists and Progressives held strong pacifist and isolationist beliefs, rejecting international involvement. A major concern of many members was the 1920 Census and its potential effect on redistributing House seats among states.
Even as the unsettled climate abroad threatened, domestic concerns continued to dominate the House in the 1930s. Representatives eagerly rallied behind a plan to combat the Great Depression by paying veterans an early advance bonus, and supported President Roosevelt's "100 Days" legislation.
A Domestic Focus
Why did the House concentrate primarily on domestic concerns, leaving foreign policy to the presidency? Two factors kept representatives' attention at home. First, as domestic policy grew increasingly technical, it demanded greater expertise—and attention.
Second, presidents consistently showed superior leadership in foreign and economic policies. Compared with the more fragmented chorus in the House, the president's ability to speak with a single voice and take a broader approach to these national issues gave the executive branch an important advantage.
Every decade, the Census determines the size of each state’s House delegation. Before 1913 (when membership reached 435), total House membership expanded steadily as the population grew—with some states getting more members while others kept the same number even if their population decreased. The chamber became increasingly crowded, forcing members to abandon individual desks on the floor in favor of compact theater-style seating.
The 1920 Census raised a new dilemma. More than half the population now lived in cities and towns. Rural states fought suggestions to shrink their delegations. Other members, meanwhile, resisted enlarging the already packed House. Congress broke the stalemate before the 1930 Census by deciding to keep the number at 435, with individual states gaining and losing seats after each Census.
The Great Depression devastated families and shattered lives. By 1933, one in four American workers was unemployed. People were desperate. Representative Wright Patman of Texas, a World War I veteran, introduced a bill for early payment of a $1,000 veterans’ bonus, originally scheduled to be awarded in 1945.
Veterans rallied behind the idea. More than 20,000 of them marched on Washington to show their support. The House passed Patman’s bill. The Senate did not. Standing on the Capitol plaza, Patman personally announced the results to the veterans. Most left Washington—but not all. A few weeks later, the U.S. Army forcibly removed the remaining “Bonus Marchers.” Press photos and news-reels of their eviction turned many against the Hoover administration, which had ordered the action.
"He had just as well try to sweep back the waves of the ocean with a broom."
—Representative Wright Patman of Texas on President Hoover's dilemma with the Bonus Marchers, 1932
In 1916, four years before women nationwide won the right to vote, Montana’s Jeannette Rankin—the first woman elected to Congress—captured a House seat. (Montana granted women the vote in 1914.) A fighter for woman suffrage, the dedicated pacifist also was among 50 House members opposing U.S. entry into World War I.
Rankin narrowly lost a race for the Senate in 1918 but returned to the House in 1941. That December, as Pearl Harbor still smoldered from the Japanese attack, Rankin cast the sole vote against war. “As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said, “and I refuse to send anyone else.” After the vote, Rankin had to barricade herself in a phone booth until the Capitol Police escorted her to safety.
"As a woman I can’t go to war ... and I refuse to send anyone else."
—Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, 1941
Nazi Germany occupied Western Europe. Japanese forces were expanding across Asia. Many Americans became convinced that the United States faced grave threats. Were we ready? Early in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to extend the term of military service. But draftees, conscripted for one year, wanted to finish and go home. Could America afford to let them go?
"Things are changing fast," observed the new House Speaker, Sam Rayburn of Texas, "and matters are becoming more complicated and dangerous every day." As the Senate passed an 18-month extension for draftees, Rayburn lobbied House members to go along. That August, in a roll call vote, the extension squeaked through the House by one vote, 203–202. Four months later, Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. America was at war.
"The responsibility rests solely with the Congress."
—President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941