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.