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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.

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Flexibility in meeting change is vital to the success of American democracy. And seldom has change come so quickly as in this era.

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The House of Representatives 1945-Present

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 More recently, committee consensus has been replaced by open debate on the House floor, often revealing sharp differences between the parties, highlighted in televised House proceedings and electronic roll call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.

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The Senate 1945-Present

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.

Continuity

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."

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The Capitol 1945-Present

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.

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Images of the Era - 1945-Present

  • Today the Capitol, enlarged and enhanced

    Today the Capitol, enlarged and enhanced with a new visitor center, remains a forum for representative democracy in a changing world.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • The atom bomb—here tested on Bikini Island, 1946

    The atom bomb—here tested on Bikini Island, 1946 —was an ever-looming Cold War threat, fueling the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

    National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

  • Under the Marshall Plan

    Under the Marshall Plan, the United States provided aid to Europe for recovery after World War II.

    © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

  • The United States and its allies airlifted supplies

    The United States and its allies airlifted supplies to West Berlin during the Soviet blockade, 1948.

    Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, U.S.-led United Nations forces responded.

    When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, U.S.-led United Nations forces responded.

    © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

  • Millions of World War II and Korean War veterans furthered their education, thanks to the GI Bill.

    Millions of World War II and Korean War veterans furthered their education, thanks to the GI Bill.

    New York World Telegram and Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United States and its European allies pledged mutual defense and peacekeeping.

    Through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United States and its European allies pledged mutual defense and peacekeeping.

    AP/Wide World Photos

  • The 1950s witnessed a rush to the suburbs, with new housing developments like Levittown, Pennsylvania.

    The 1950s witnessed a rush to the suburbs, with new housing developments like Levittown, Pennsylvania.

    National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

  • The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 created a nationwide network for fast, uninterrupted travel.

    The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 created a nationwide network for fast, uninterrupted travel.

    D.C. Public Library, Star Collection, Copyright Washington Post

  • Ambassador Adlai Stevenson presented evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba to the U.N. Security Council, 1962.

    Ambassador Adlai Stevenson presented evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba to the U.N. Security Council, 1962.

    © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

  • Thousands joined Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall in 1963 to demand jobs, freedom, and civil rights for African-Americans.

    Thousands joined Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall in 1963 to demand jobs, freedom, and civil rights for African-Americans.

    © Flip Schulke/CORBIS

  • Helicopters dropped U.S. infantrymen into Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in 1967 as the war escalated.

    Helicopters dropped U.S. infantrymen into Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in 1967 as the war escalated.

    © Bettmann/CORBIS

  • Astronaut Buzz Aldrin posed with the U.S. flag on the first lunar landing, July 20, 1969.

    Astronaut Buzz Aldrin posed with the U.S. flag on the first lunar landing, July 20, 1969.

    National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  • Earth Day, initiated in 1970, became an annual celebration drawing attention to environmental concerns.

    Earth Day, initiated in 1970, became an annual celebration drawing attention to environmental concerns.

    © Todd Gipstein/CORBIS

  • Immigrants from many countries took the oath of citizenship in Seattle on July 4, 1993.

    Immigrants from many countries took the oath of citizenship in Seattle on July 4, 1993.

    © Dean Wong/CORBIS

  • AIDS activists in 1994 push for the eradication of the disease.

    AIDS activists in 1994 push for the eradication of the disease.

    © Mark Peterson/CORBIS

  • Unprecedented attacks on September 11, 2001, thrust the United States into a war against terrorism.

    Unprecedented attacks on September 11, 2001, thrust the United States into a war against terrorism.

    Tamara Beckwith/New York Post

  • Following the terrorist plane attack on September 11, 2001, firefighters hoisted the American flag over the Pentagon.

    Following the terrorist plane attack on September 11, 2001, firefighters hoisted the American flag over the Pentagon.

    AP/Wide World Photos

  • Gavel, 9/11 Commemorative Joint Session of Congress

    Made for the Senate, this gavel was displayed on the rostrum during a special joint meeting of Congress in New York City on September 6, 2002, to commemorate the losses suffered during terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

    Collection of the U.S. Senate