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.
Flexibility in meeting change is vital to the success of American democracy. And seldom has change come so quickly as in this era.
After World War II, veterans returned home eager to find jobs and start families. The postwar baby boom, combined with immigration, doubled the U.S. population over the next half century, increasing demands for schools, housing, and goods; and economic growth was unprecedented. In order to expand the benefits of American freedom and prosperity, Congress passed laws aiding the elderly, disabled, and poor, as well as historic civil rights legislation.
A four-decade Cold War shaped American foreign policy in the last half of the 20th century. Troops fought wars in Korea and Vietnam, and were stationed around the globe. When the Cold War ended, America faced new regional conflicts, as well as the growth of global terrorism. Confronting the challenges of an increasingly interdependent world, the American people continued to express their views within this singular forum of representative democracy—the Congress of the United States.
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.
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."
An Enduring Emblem
The Capitol is one place—but it fills three roles. It’s a revered national symbol, a showcase of history, and a working office building. Balancing these functions is a great challenge.
The Capitol gained an east front extension in 1962. Its campus grew with three new congressional office buildings, an additional Library of Congress structure, and a federal judiciary office building. In 1993, a bicentennial celebration of the Capitol’s first cornerstone honored 200 years of its architectural, artistic, and political life, and in 2008 an underground visitor center opened. Like the country it serves, the Capitol continues to evolve and inspire.