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.
Flexibility in meeting change is vital to the success of American democracy. And seldom has change come so quickly as in this era.
Representing a Superpower
America’s growing superpower role frequently strained relations between the House and the presidency. House support for increased military spending after World War II became a casualty of Vietnam as representatives grew skeptical of presidential military and foreign policies. The war further wrecked havoc on House support for President Johnson’s ambitious “Great Society” programs at home, while the Watergate scandals later inflamed House relations with the presidency.
Forty years of Democratic House majorities ended in 1995 as congressional elections became focused for a brief time on national issues. Slim Republican majorities, though, encouraged greater levels of party competition as many incumbents turned their efforts to cultivating support in their districts.
A More Open Chamber
Politics requires balancing both conviction and compromise. After World War II, House committees usually worked out legislative disagreements behind the scenes. More recently, committee consensus has been replaced by open debate on the House floor, often revealing sharp differences between the parties, highlighted in televised House proceedings and electronic roll call voting records. During the last quarter century, the chamber also has grown increasingly inclusive as voters elected more African-Americans, Latinos, and women.
In 1948, Americans watched anxiously as a dramatic espionage tale unfolded in the House of Representatives. Whittaker Chambers, a Time editor, confessed to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) that he’d been a spy for the Soviet Union. Chambers accused a former State Department official, Alger Hiss, of being among his Communist contacts.
Hiss fiercely denied the charge. Representative Richard Nixon of California, suspecting that Hiss was lying, convinced Chambers to produce microfilm documents from Hiss—documents that Chambers had hidden on his farm in a hollowed-out pumpkin. Hiss sued for libel, but was convicted of perjury in 1950 and sent to prison. The Hiss–Chambers confrontation riveted the nation, triggering widespread espionage fears and spurring further congressional investigations.
Many in Congress dealt with racial discrimination by ignoring it. Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of New York insisted on breaking the silence.
In the 1930s and 1940s, a “Conservative Coalition” of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” saying that all this federal legislation weakened states’ rights. Many also fought federal attempts to end segregation, arguing that states should decide for themselves. During World War II, Representative Powell, a flamboyant Harlem minister and African-American leader, forced the House to address discrimination.
Powell challenged segregation in the Capitol itself, fought to repeal the poll tax that disenfranchised black voters, and pressed to integrate the military. His amendments banning federal funds for projects supporting segregation made him “Mr. Civil Rights,” forcing the House to confront the issue until Congress outlawed segregation in 1964.
“The issues before us are legal, but more than that, moral and ethical.”
—Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of New York, 1956
“A vote against Powell would seem to be a vote against the Constitution.”
—President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Congress often studies issues for months or years, waiting for the right moment to act. Wilbur Mills of Arkansas, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, was a master of such timing.
President Lyndon Johnson had proposed mandatory hospital insurance for the elderly. Mills, convinced that the House was not ready to approve the measure, maintained his “one-man veto,” not letting it come to a vote. “It’s a waste of time to bring out a bill if you can’t pass it,” Mills declared. Then, in 1964, Johnson’s landslide election victory helped bring a flood of new Democrats to the House. Mills now felt that an even more ambitious bill could succeed. Additional programs were added, including doctor visits and medical care for the needy.
“Like everyone else in the room, I was stunned. It was the most brilliant legislative move I’d seen in thirty years.”
-Health, Education, and Welfare Undersecretary Wilbur Cohen, 1966
The shocks and turmoil of the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal brought major government reforms. These changes forged much of the character that defines the House today.
Demands for greater openness in government meant fewer closed committee meetings. The House installed electronic voting systems in 1973, and in 1979 began televising its debates. Committees continued to do important work behind the scenes, but the televised proceedings became increasingly important.
The House also began choosing committee chairs through party caucuses rather than by seniority. This too shifted more power to party leaders and individual members, and away from committee leaders. These and other changes have helped the House to enter the 21st century a more open and responsive instrument of representative democracy.
They wanted to change the Congress of the United States; which they did.”
— Speaker “Tip” O’Neill on the new representatives he called “Watergate Babies"
The House of Representatives today differs considerably from its 18th-century predecessors. More members crowd into a larger chamber for more days in session, voting electronically. They work assisted by an army of staff, filling three large office buildings. Partisanship, which has replaced regional factionalism, has varied in intensity over time. And yet the House, which remains the body closest to the people, is the great success story of the government invented by the Founders. Elections held every two years for all its members encourage representatives to pay close attention to the voters. Of all the institutions created by the Constitution, the House stays true to its origins. “Here, sir, the people govern,” Alexander Hamilton accurately predicted of the House. “Here they act by their immediate representatives.”