The House

The People's Chamber

The founders expected the House of Representatives to take center stage in the new American government. They felt that its status as the only national institution with members elected directly by the people made the House uniquely important—and posed special dangers. "The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy," warned Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts at the Constitutional Convention.

Through much of this early period, the House was indeed the nation's driving political force. It proposed the Bill of Rights, drafted legislation to create government agencies, carried out investigations, and shaped an aggressive policy toward Great Britain.

Getting Organized

The House of Representatives was new, yet rested on familiar foundations. The individual states had long experience with popularly elected legislatures. Representatives also looked to Britain's House of Commons, adopting ideas such as a presiding Speaker and basic parliamentary procedures. Its launch went smoothly.

Morris Udall 1922–1998, Arizona

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“Mo” Udall strove to bring about change, but often with a joke. “Humor can disarm an enemy,” he often said. Udall challenged the House leadership during the 1960s to share power more widely among members, foreshadowing the 1970s reforms. He used his power as Chairman of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee to insert environmental concerns into the legislative process.

Gerald R. Ford 1913—2006, Michigan

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Popular with both parties, Ford worked as Republican leader for over ten years. Rather than simply opposing measures proposed by the Democratic majority, he crafted Republican alternatives. “We wanted to come forward with proposals that would broaden our political base,” he said. Trusted by both political factions, he helped heal the nation when he became president after Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Discharge Petition for the Equal Rights Amendment, 1970

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A discharge petition allows the majority of the House to bypass committee action and bring a measure directly to the floor. Representative Martha Griffiths of Michigan spearheaded the passage of this petition for a women’s Equal Rights Amendment.

Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

Second Image: Michigan's Martha Griffiths--a champion of women's rights--was the first female to serve on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which deals with revenue issues.

James A. Garfield 1831–1881, Ohio

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Garfield was still a Union general when he was elected to Congress. A former teacher and college president, the general had a scholarly style. He headed three major committees in succession, and many speculated that Garfield would soon become Speaker. Instead, in 1880, the Republicans drafted him as their presidential candidate. Garfield became the only president elected directly from the House.

House chamber, 1901

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Originally built to accommodate more than two hundred members, the chamber held nearly twice that number by the early 20th century. To ease crowding, the House reconfigured members’ desks and built an office building near the Capitol.

Architect of the Capitol

Joseph G. Cannon 1836–1926, Illinois

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As Speaker, "Uncle Joe" Cannon wielded autocratic power. Yet he remained popular among colleagues, admired for vigorously defending the House against encroachments by the Senate and president. A colorful character, Cannon proudly called himself the "hayseed member from Illinois." One hostess was warned never to come between the tobacco-chewing Speaker and a spittoon.

Joseph G. Cannon, photograph, ca. 1906

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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