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.