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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.
Flexibility in meeting change is vital to the success of American democracy. And seldom has change come so quickly as in this era.
Facing New Fears and New Responsibilities
Before World War II, Congress spent less than half the year in session. With government increasingly active in meeting domestic and foreign challenges in the postwar years, Congress became a fully staffed, year-round legislative body.
After the war, anxiety fueled by the Cold War helped Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin use the Senate to hunt for Communists allegedly working in the government. A decade later, in the 1960s, civil rights and the Vietnam War dominated Senate debate. In the 1970s, the Senate Watergate Committee investigated presidential misconduct, while members also focused attention on Southeast Asia, the Soviet Union, and the Panama Canal. As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, worldwide issues of poverty, disease, and illiteracy inflamed the international political climate and required attention from U.S. policymakers.
The Senate has changed significantly over the past two centuries. However, despite important innovations, the Senate remains a symbol of continuity. Senators still treasure the tradition of virtually unlimited debate. They enjoy the ability to amend legislation throughout the legislative process. The Senate still conducts groundbreaking investigations, and scrutinizes—and sometimes rejects—presidential nominations to executive and judicial offices. As Senator Henry Cabot Lodge observed more than one hundred years ago, "Administrations come and go, Houses assemble and disperse, Senators change, but the Senate is always there in the Capitol, and always organized, with an existence unbroken since 1789."
As America and the Soviet Union faced off in the Cold War, sensational charges of Soviet spying triggered congressional investigations. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican, accused the State Department of harboring “known Communists.” When McCarthy became Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations three years later, he set out to prove his charges.
McCarthy called hundreds of witnesses, browbeating and intimidating them. His charges of Communist subversion in the U.S. Army culminated in the 1954 televised Army–McCarthy hearings. When Army Counsel Joseph Welch challenged the senator’s reckless charges, asking, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” McCarthy’s support eroded. The Senate later censured him for conduct unbecoming a senator.
"Senator Ervin: Do we have the manhood in the Senate to stand up to a challenge of that kind?
Senator Arthur V. Watkins: I think we do. I may be a coward, but I will not compromise with that kind of attack. . . . I will not compromise on matters of principle.
—Congressional Record, November 16, 1954
“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
—Army Counsel Joseph Welch, June 9, 1954
The question in the summer of 1964 was not whether senators would approve a civil rights bill, but whether they would vote on one. Using classic filibuster techniques (long speeches and procedural delays), opponents of the 1964 Civil Rights Act delayed a vote for 57 days. Ending debate required two-thirds of the Senate—67 senators.
On June 10, 1964, for the first time since the Reconstruction era just after the Civil War, a coalition uniting many Republicans with northern and western Democrats successfully ended the filibuster. Nine days later, the Senate approved the bill. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned racial discrimination in public facilities and required equal employment opportunities for all Americans, regardless of race. “Stronger than all the armies,” said Republican minority leader Everett Dirksen, quoting Victor Hugo, “is an idea whose time has come.”
“We dare not temporize with the issue which is before us. It is essentially moral in character. It must be resolved. It will not go away. Its time has come.”
—Senator Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, June 10, 1964
The Constitution makes the president commander in chief of the armed forces, but gives Congress the power to declare war, sometimes creating tension between the two branches. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright was an early supporter of America’s efforts against the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia. He supported the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, authorizing American military retaliation against North Vietnamese attacks. When President Lyndon Johnson used the resolution as the equivalent of a declaration of war, Senator Fulbright launched a series of hearings to explore the reasons for America’s escalating participation in the conflict. Both supporters and critics of the Vietnam War testified in hearings that continued until 1972. The often-televised investigation promoted a national debate over the Vietnam War and gave encouragement to the growing antiwar movement.
Five men were arrested in June 1972 for illegally entering the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate building. Republican president Richard Nixon denied any connection between the burglary and his reelection campaign. Yet, suspicions lingered. After Nixon’s landslide victory in November, the Senate appointed a special committee to investigate the matter.
In televised hearings, the Watergate committee, chaired by North Carolina senator Sam Ervin, grilled key administration figures. The committee soon discovered that Nixon had secretly recorded his Oval Office conversations, and the Supreme Court ordered the president to give these tapes to a special prosecutor. They revealed Nixon’s role in the cover-up. The Senate hearings swayed public opinion and helped lead to an impeachment effort in the House—halted abruptly by President Nixon’s resignation. The Watergate affair reinforced the Senate’s investigative role and—into the 21st century—strengthened its vigilance against abuses of governmental power.
As the Senate moved into the 21st century, it exhibited much continuity with the institution created two centuries earlier. Yet some things had changed. Senate proceedings in the chamber and in the hearing rooms were now televised, giving the public unprecedented access. Electronic mail and the Internet provided nearly instantaneous communication between senators and their constituents. The membership of the Senate, like the population of the nation, grew more diverse with more women and minorities winning elections. The election of 2000 caused a rare tie between the parties in the Senate, beginning an era of close party divisions, frequent party turnover, and shorter tenures for Senate leaders. Throughout all of this change, senators continue to promote the nation’s goals and aspirations, while meeting the demands of security in a troubled world.