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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.
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.
Confronting Crises at Home and Abroad
World War I and the Great Depression presented new challenges to America, and to the Senate. To deal with these crises, Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt demanded more authority—which shook the balance of power between the branches. What was the Senate’s proper role?
Members debated giving too much power—or too little—to the president in times of national crisis. In 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor temporarily ended this debate in favor of the president. The national unity of World War II also helped forge a bipartisan foreign policy.
Limiting Debate, Flexing its Muscle
To hasten a decision on entering World War I, the Senate for the first time reined in its tradition of unlimited debate. After the war, the Senate—disagreeing bitterly with President Woodrow Wilson—rejected the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations that Wilson had helped negotiate. As the issues confronting the Senate grew in number and complexity, members for the first time elected formal party floor leaders to manage the chamber’s legislative agenda. In this era, Senate committees expanded their investigations of actions by the executive branch, climaxing with a World War II inquiry into how money is spent for national defense. Later, senators explored how best to strengthen Congress against the continued increase in presidential power.
Louis D. Brandeis—called the “People’s Lawyer”— had built a national reputation by fighting monopolies and defending consumers. He also was the first person of Jewish descent nominated to the Supreme Court. In the furious 1916 confirmation battle, opponents of the controversial lawyer, some veiling their anti-Semitism, called Brandeis a dangerous radical lacking judicial temperament.
The Senate Judiciary Committee held unprecedented public hearings on the Brandeis nomination. Prominent witnesses assailed Brandeis as unfit to serve. President Woodrow Wilson staunchly defended his nominee as “a friend of all just men and a lover of the right.” The Senate ultimately confirmed Brandeis by a vote of 47–22. During his 23 years on the bench, Louis Brandeis earned a place as one of the Supreme Court’s most respected and influential members.
"... a friend of all just men and a lover of the right."
—President Woodrow Wilson, describing Louis D. Brandeis, May 5, 1916
President Woodrow Wilson sailed to Europe to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles, setting peace terms concluding World War I and establishing the League of Nations. He failed to make peace with opponents back home. The Senate, exercising its constitutional duty to provide “advice and consent,” twice rejected the treaty.
The Democratic president had not consulted key lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Senate—particularly Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the powerful Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Lodge offered 14 amendments to Wilson’s treaty. The president refused to compromise. Instead, Wilson embarked on a national speaking tour to win public support. While traveling, however, he suffered a physical collapse, which led to a paralyzing stroke. Without Wilson’s leadership, the treaty went down to defeat in the Senate, and America never joined the League of Nations.
The crisis of the Great Depression demanded action. During his 1932 presidential campaign, Franklin D. Roosevelt advised: “Take a method and try it. If it fails . . . try another. But above all, try something.” When Congress convened on March 9, 1933, it joined President Roosevelt in a flurry of legislation to restore America’s confidence and prosperity.
On the first day, Congress passed, and the president signed, emergency banking relief. In the weeks ahead, senators and representatives approved bills creating public-works jobs, insuring bank deposits, refinancing home and farm mortgages, reorganizing railroads, stabilizing prices and wages, establishing power plants and flood control projects, and helping farmers sell surplus crops. The session lasted 100 days—a creative burst of energy that initiated economic recovery and established a more activist role for the federal government.
"Take a method and try it. If it fails ... try another. But above all, try something."
— President Franklin D. Roosevelt, May 22, 1932
National defense was critical on the eve of World War II. Congress worried about possible waste and mismanagement in military preparations, and wanted to ensure that defense dollars were spent wisely. Senator Harry Truman of Missouri chaired a Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program (popularly called the Truman Committee).
Truman Committee hearings exposed abuses while encouraging industry, labor, and government to cooperate. Though scrutinizing military matters, the committee avoided interfering in military strategy. Truman’s tireless investigations won praise for improving defense production and saving millions of dollars. They also won Truman national attention—and the 1944 Democratic nomination as vice president. Truman became president in 1945, after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. His committee, meanwhile, continued after the war as the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
"Everyone connected with the national-defense program should have a patriotic interest in seeing that it is properly carried out."
— Senator Harry Truman of Missouri, February 10, 1941