The world where House and Senate Chambers are packed with Members attentively listening to their colleagues ended long before films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Advise and Consent” paid it homage.

The Legislative Branch was intended to be the shining ideal of ordered debate and civil discourse.  Thomas Jefferson eloquently spoke of this noble mission, “Congress is the great commanding theater of this nation. It is the place where laws are made.” [1]

Originally, the Chambers themselves were designed to foster the exchange of ideas and the forging of national policy through intellectual inquiry. [2]

Today both Houses of the Legislative Branch are pale reflections of these ideals.  Members of the House of Representatives and Senate trade prepackaged partisan barbs to empty chambers.  “Congress is changing as an institution, and what you see is more and more members gearing their speeches as sound bites or YouTube clips,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation.  [3]

What happened to the institution where, “members quoted Shakespeare on the floor and really engaged in debate and talked to each other and tried to reason back and forth?” [4]

Blame the size and complexity of the Federal Government.

The conflict between legislative business occurring at center stage versus behind the scenes started in the Continental Congress.  Even during the formative stages of America, there were committees that met away from the Chamber to prepare legislation for consideration.

These committees were temporary in nature.  Ad hoc committees were established within the House and Senate for a particular purpose and ended when they completed their task.  Selecting committee membership was a function of the entire body.  Committee members were usually the sponsors of specific bills and resolutions. These temporary committees were formed with one week deadlines for reporting back to the parent chamber.  Members of the House and Senate actually spent the majority of their time collectively in the “committee of the whole” to conduct legislative business. [5]

The first permanent, or “standing committee”, was the House’s Committee on Ways and Means in 1801. It took until 1816 before the Senate created its first standing committees.  Even with standing committees, committee chairs and members acted as limited adjuncts to the full House and Senate. [6]

The rise of Andrew Jackson and “Jacksonian Democrats” ushered in modern political parties.  Partisan alignments seeped into the workings of the Legislative Branch.  By 1846 Members began to sit together in the Senate chamber according to party affiliation.  That same year saw the shift to committee assignments based upon recommendations of political party caucuses. [7]

Even with the rise of partisanship and standing committees, legislation was primarily handled by Members conducting learned debate in Chambers packed with colleagues and the public.  Congressional debates mattered and the future of America was being discussed and shaped every day the House and Senate were in session.  The leaders of Washington society eagerly attended these sessions.  The public filled the Senate’s “Ladies’ Gallery” and even sat on couches along the walls of the Senate Floor. [8]

America was growing and the strategic issue of slavery expanding westward dominated legislative debate.  The issues were large and larger than life political leaders rose to voice concerns on behalf of the various regions of the United States.

The years 1810 through 1859, were a period known as the “Golden Age” of the Senate.  During this time three of the greatest senators and orators in American history served there: Henry Clay (Kentucky) articulating the views and concerns of the West, Daniel Webster (Massachusetts) representing the North, and John C. Calhoun (South Carolina) representing the South.

During these years America’s political leaders debated and resolved major issues on the Floors of the House and Senate.  These included the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the nullification debate of 1830 (Haynes-Webster debates), and the Compromise of 1850. “Washington’s elite gathered to watch the impassioned oratory and the great compromises that took place in this Chamber.” [9]


”On any given day, you’d find most of the senators at their desks in the chamber … writing, listening, debating, laughing, sleeping, franking mail. They were all present. No doubt, this was conducive to debate and resulted in some great discussions and arguments. The crowded Chamber also provided a great show for the visitors in the gallery.” [10]


There was power in oratory. The debates among Clay, Webster, Calhoun, and others mattered.  These debates over America’s future became touch stones of our nation’s civic culture. For example, Daniel Webster’s speeches were so famous, “that his reply “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” to Senator Robert Hayne in a debate in 1830 was memorized by schoolboys and was on the lips of Northern soldiers as they charged forward in the Civil War.” [11]

The “Golden Age” made the House and Senate Chambers center stage in the Legislative Branch and in the nation.  However, other forces were at work to pull power and attention away from this national forum.

Government was growing slowly, but incessantly.  By 1856 the complexities of government, and its legislation, required major committees to hire clerical staff. For another fifty years House and Senate Members made do with cramped quarters in the ever expanding Capitol Building.  The House of Representatives met in its new chamber on December 16, 1857, and the Senate first met in its new chamber on January 4, 1859. [12] During this time Members attended full sessions of the House and Senate in part because there was no other place for them to work. [13]

This fundamentally changed in the 20th Century.  The Russell Senate Office Building opened in 1909.  The Cannon House Office Building opened in 1908.  Members began to spend more time in their offices or attending committee meetings.  The role of the House and Senate Chambers diminished to a place for voting instead of debating.  Eventually, six office buildings would be filled with Members and their staffs.

Another blow to the stature of Chamber debate was the surge in executive branch activism under the Progressives (Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson), Democrats (Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson), and ultimately Presidents of both parties.

Big government forever changed the role of the Legislative Branch.  Members had to confront more than legislation.  Their offices became “mini-embassies” representing and advising their constituents on navigating the ever growing morass of government programs and agencies.

Members soon realized that power resided in minutiae rather than big issues.  By specializing in niche issues and becoming experts on micro-matters they became brokers for legislative processes.  Unblocking choke points meant cutting deals with their colleagues and special interests.  Members helping district and special interests to navigate the increasingly complex government labyrinth were rewarded with votes and donations.  The road to power and riches ceased to be in front of the scenes, and settled into the dark recesses behind the scenes.

Efforts were made to reverse this undemocratic trend.  In 1946, Congress tried to winnow down and streamline the hundreds of committees that blossomed during the New Deal and World War II. [14] Instead, The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 expanded staffs and institutionalized Member focus away from Floor debate. [15]

The number of committee meetings grew as government grew. During the 85th Congress (1957-1958) there were 3,750 House meetings and 2,748 Senate meetings.  By the 95th Congress (1977-1978) it was 7,896 House meetings and 3,960 Senate meetings. [16] Members had to pick and choose which meetings to attend, trading time for their staff, constituents, lobbyists, and donors.  Hearing rooms became just as empty as their parent Chamber.

Social media and fundraising have joined the competition for Members’ over stretched attention.  Lost in this cacophony is Jefferson’s ideal of civil discourse.  The towering figures of the Golden Age are now just names on statues that Members pass on their way to Chambers where they quickly vote and leave.

Scot Faulkner served as the first Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives.



[2] Richard Chenowerth, “The Most Beautiful Room in the World; Latrobe, Jefferson, and the First Capitol”; The Capitol Dome, Fall 2014; p. 24-39.


[4] Ibid


[6] “The Committee System.” Boundless Political Science. Boundless, 25 Jan. 2015.




[10] Betty K. Koed; “The Ten Most Important Things to Know About the U.S. Senate”; United States Senate Historical Office.

[11] Craig R. Smith, “Daniel Webster and the Oratory of Civil Religion”; January 30, 2005; University of Missouri Press.


[13] Joanna Hallac; “Old Senate Chamber”

[14] The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 (PL 601 79th Congress);

[15] George B. Galloway; “The Operation of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946”; The American Political Science Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, (Mar., 1951), pp. 41-68 American Political Science Association; page 56;

[16] Norman J. Ornstein, Thomas E. Mann, Michael J. Malbin, Andrew Rugg and Raffaela Wakeman Vital Statistics on Congress Data on the U.S. Congress – A Joint Effort from Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute ; July 2013

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3 replies
  1. Ralph Howarth
    Ralph Howarth says:

    Many committee meetings resort to pre-scripted exchanges where one clerk verbally reads aloud to a stenographer. This all to simply get the “meeting” on record. Reality is they could simply take the notes of the clerk and skip the whole stenographer time and expense of your tax dollars at work. But in order to be on the record, the text is read aloud to often empty rooms.

    It also used to be that the SCOTUS convened in the basement of the capitol building and did not have their own building. This was customary as the legislative body regulated the court system. The court was to be consistent and have access to the legislative record as a means to inquire about the originalism of the laws as written to determine the legislative intent of the laws if there be uncertainties of laws.

  2. lamed vav
    lamed vav says:

    Thanks for this. I wish everyone could read this. It’s an excellent overview of the history of the politics of America.


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