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.
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.
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.
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.
Stability in an Era of Change
The first half of the 20th century was a time of upheavals and change, with two world wars, the Great Depression, and unprecedented technological transformations. Amid the turmoil and uncertainty that marked the era, the Capitol’s unfailing dignity was a reassuring presence, giving Americans a sense of steady resolve in troubled times.
While the Capitol itself remained unaltered, new buildings and additional land helped the campus evolve and expand. Improving the facilities and beautifying the setting were constant concerns, leading to an ever-changing backdrop for the unchanging Capitol.