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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After the civil war, the country faced dramatic change as a landscape of farms and villages yielded to factories and sprawling cities. An abundance of labor and plentiful raw materials brought prosperity to many, and the image of the United States as a beacon of freedom and opportunity encouraged immigration from all parts of the world. Many workers, including immigrants, racial minorities, and children, however, often toiled long hours in dangerous conditions for little pay. By the turn of the century, reformers in Congress were pressing for new ways to make government more responsive to the needs of poor farmers, laborers, and urban dwellers.

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The House of Representatives 1877-1913

The People's Platform

In the late 19th century, industrialization and migration from countryside to cities created new groups of Americans, new constituencies. The House gave them a forum. Frequent elections and small districts made the House a place where marginal or regional interests could gain seats and make their voices heard.

In the South, however, "Jim Crow" laws enforced segregation, pushing African-Americans out of the political process. Former rebels easily captured Southern seats.

Later in the century, the House became a national stage for rural Populists. In an era when unregulated development often favored the wealthy, Populists championed farmers and laborers who felt exploited or left behind.

Changing the House

Early in this era, Democrats dominating the House continually battled a Republican president or Senate, making it difficult to achieve results. Outside observers of the House described a legislature that depended too heavily on standing committees—"little legislatures"—to provide direction and get things done. Many observers also concluded that the House was hobbled by outdated rules and procedures. By the end of the period, a series of strong Speakers had helped to streamline operations and shepherd the chamber into the 20th century.

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The Senate 1877-1913

Letting the Voters Choose

For Congress’s first 125 years, senators were elected by state legislatures. This system proved troublesome almost from the beginning. Political party conflicts frequently delayed the selection, causing some states to go without full representation in the Senate for extended periods.

The resulting deadlocks seriously disrupted state business. Political bosses frequently manipulated Senate elections to advance their own economic interests. Reformers responded by campaigning for a constitutional amendment that would take the selection of senators out of the hands of corruptible state legislatures and give it directly to the people. With ratification in 1913 of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, the Senate, like the House, could truly call itself "the people’s branch."

A More Businesslike Body

As America grew more complicated in the early 20th century, the Senate tried to make governing more efficient. The Industrial Revolution created a complex economy and brought vast social changes. The arrival of the activist Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson brought new challenges to congressional authority. The Senate responded by centralizing and streamlining operations. Party caucus chairs (representing members of each party) and committee leaders increasingly controlled the agenda. They were less successful in limiting debates. As constituents demanded more services, senators gained small support staffs and space in a permanent office building.

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The Capitol 1877-1913

The Capitol Campus

Presiding magnificently over an expanding and robust nation, the Capitol itself changed little during this period. The grounds, however, were a different story. They blossomed in the 1870s and 1880s from a disheveled construction site into a picturesque garden.

Perhaps the most noticeable change was a marble terrace that replaced the earthen embankments along the west front.

At the century’s end, the Library of Congress moved from the Capitol to a new building nearby. Shortly thereafter, Congress built additional office buildings for the House and Senate. These structures freed up space inside the building and ushered in a new era of a Capitol "campus."

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Images of the Era - 1877-1913