A History of Congress, by the (Rule) Book
As Roll Call celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, the institution it covers continues to evolve in ways that would surprise, puzzle and even please the Founding Fathers.
For decades, the Capitol was a Byzantine world of smoke-filled rooms and secret deals presided over a small coterie of veteran lawmakers, many of them Southerners. But the end of World War II in 1945 saw the humble beginnings of a campaign both inside and outside Congress to force the House and Senate to become more open and accessible. The idea was to make Congress more efficient and productive, and to provide lawmakers with tools to carry out authentic oversight on an executive branch that had exploded in size and complexity during the global conflict.
However, real change on Capitol Hill was a long time coming, with brutal battles over jurisdictional turf derailing many early attempts at modernization.
The 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act, for instance, was designed to loosen the hold of entrenched committee chairmen, but the measure failed to live up to its early promise. In the views of many contemporary observers, chairmen actually became more powerful as a result of the legislation.
Indeed, it took repeated political scandals in the late 1960s and early 1970s, capped by the Watergate crisis, to produce enough of a public outcry to enable reformers to rewrite the rules of Capitol Hill in a serious way.
This period was followed by another burst of legislative reforms enacted soon after Republicans took control of the House, for the first time in 40 years, in 1994. (Now, it’s the GOP that finds itself under fire from Democrats and government watchdog groups who charge that Republicans themselves have become corrupt after a decade in power.)
The institutional changes adopted since the late 1960s have transformed the way Congress operates, and they reflect the ongoing attempts by those in power to strike a balance between the authority of party leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers, while also keeping in mind the public’s right to know what federal legislators are doing in their name.
And as the recent battles involving the House ethics committee and Senate judicial filibusters have shown, even arcane and complex Congressional rules and procedures can have an immense impact on how Congress as an institution functions on a day-to-day basis — and its standing is with the American people.
After consultations with experts on and off Capitol Hill, Roll Call presents this list of the most significant institutional changes during the last 50 years. They are listed in chronological order.
The Legislative Reorganization Act, 1970
This act helped kick off a decade of reform in both the House and the Senate, spearheaded by liberals who arrived on Capitol Hill during the turbulent 1960s.
One of most important rules changes for the House was a new restriction on “teller votes” by Members.
Until the act was passed, votes by individual lawmakers could not be determined when the House was operating as the Committee of the Whole, which is where most amendments are considered. The 1970 measure ended that practice, making it easier for reporters, lobbyists and the public to determine how a Member had voted on certain issues.
In another major change, the House also approved the installation of an electronic voting system rather than hand-counting by Members or clerks. That system finally went into operation in 1973.
The act also implemented a host of other changes. It “increased the opportunity for non-committee members to challenge committee bills, … forced committees to make recorded votes public, … limited proxy voting, permitted television and radio coverage of House hearings (based on the approval of a committee majority), encouraged committees to hold open hearings, required better committee assignments for junior Senators, spread staff among more committees and stipulated that one-third of committee funds would be used for minority staff,” according to Julian Zelizer, a professor of political history at the State University of New York at Albany and author of “On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and Its Consequences, 1948-2000.”
Zelizer sees the act as just one round in an ongoing struggle between Congressional reformers and entrenched power blocs in Congress, particularly conservative Southern Democrats who ran many of the House and Senate committees as personal fiefdoms and controlled the agenda on Capitol Hill.
“Because this legislation passed, the reform coalition saw a window of opportunity to obtain more of their agenda,” Zelizer wrote in his latest book, which was released in March.
Norman Ornstein, a Congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Roll Call contributing writer, agreed that the organizational changes enacted by the House during that period were part of a regional tussle for control of the chamber.
“The changes in the late 1960s and early 1970s were dramatic,” culminating in early 1975, when the “Watergate babies” — the huge House freshman class elected in 1974 following the resignation of former President Richard Nixon — ousted three veteran Democratic chairmen from the South, Ornstein said. It was a key turning point in the long quest to rein in the power of committee chairmen.
Senate Eases Cloture Requirements, 1975
Urged by then-Sens. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.), James Pearson (R-Kan.) and others, the Senate voted in March 1975 to reduce the number of Senators needed to end debate from two-thirds of the body to three-fifths. Senate reformers charged that Southern Democrats needed to be curtailed after abusing the filibuster for four decades in order to block civil rights bills.
The change represented the most dramatic modification of cloture rules since the Senate first allowed unfettered floor debates to be curtailed in 1917, and the fight to do it was lengthy and acrimonious. Southern Democrats had bitterly opposed the effort to weaken cloture requirements for at least 14 years.
Reformers were aided by favorable parliamentary rulings by then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, as well as by compromise language offered by then-Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) and then-Sen. Russell Long (D-La.). Their compromise eventually prevailed after seven weeks of sometimes nasty debate, thanks in large part to efforts by then-Majority Whip Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).
Former Sen. James Allen (D-Ala.) led the anti-cloture coalition, and he succeeded in making the final deal somewhat more palatable to his faction by retaining the two-thirds requirement for ending debate on Senate rule changes.
Allen was joined in his rear-guard action against the changes to the cloture rules by such Southerners as Sen. John Stennis (D-Miss.). Allen and his allies viewed the change as an attack on minority rights within the body.
“I’m disappointed, but I feel that through our fight we have at least been able to soften the blow somewhat,” Allen told The Washington Post following the March 7, 1975, vote. “The compromise is better than the original version” proposed by Mondale.
In the following years, the Senate tweaked the rules change to make cloture more workable, and both GOP and Democratic leaders have come to rely more heavily on the threat of cloture to manage an often unruly and unpredictable chamber.
The Stevenson Committee, 1976
Despite the reforms that had been adopted earlier in the 1970s, including the opening of committee sessions to the public and the weakening of the seniority system, Senate reformers were still pushing for more when the 94th Congress opened in 1975.
By that time, the number of committee assignments in the Senate had exploded despite efforts to limit them. Individual Senators averaged 18 committee and subcommittee assignments each, with some Senators holding far more, and party leaders on both sides of the aisle agreed that changes had to be made.
In March 1976, then-Sen. Adlai Stevenson III (D-Ill.), son of the two-time Democratic presidential nominee, was appointed to chair the Temporary Select Committee to Study the Senate Committee System. Stevenson’s task was to winnow down some of the 31 committees and 174 subcommittees that existed in the Senate, while also helping junior members of the august body win better overall committee assignments.
When the Stevenson Committee issued its recommendations the following year in the 95th Congress, it initiated the most sweeping reorganization of Senate panels since 1946.
Three full committees, Aeronautical and Space Sciences, District of Columbia, and Post Office and Civil Service, were eliminated outright. The jurisdictions of the major standing committees were revised into the system that is still in place today. Junior Senators were also guaranteed at least one prestigious committee assignment, enhancing their status within the Senate.
Don Ritchie, associate historian of the Senate, called the Stevenson committee a major step forward in making the Senate schedule more workable. “Every Senator was on so many committees and subcommittees that they couldn’t go them all,” noted Ritchie. “They were trying to make the whole situation more workable for each Senator.”
While a lot of the old subcommittees have re-emerged in the 30 years since Stevenson took on his difficult task, Ritchie called the panel’s work “a big change — one of the most significant” that the Senate has undertaken in the modern era.
Perhaps no other rule or institutional change adopted by Congress has had as much impact as C-SPAN.
Created by the cable industry, C-SPAN first began broadcasting House floor debates in early 1979. At that time, C-SPAN — it stands for the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network — had four employees, was available in 3.5 million households, and broadcast for only a few hours a day.
Today, C-SPAN has 275 employees, an annual budget of $40 million, reaches 86 million homes on 7,900 different cable systems, and is broadcast on three channels, around the clock and unedited, according to its Web site. C-SPAN launched its own radio network in 1997.
In June 1986, following years of resistance, the Senate voted to allow its proceedings to be shown on TV as well. C-SPAN2 was created to carry that chamber’s floor actions.
The battle over allowing broadcasts of Congressional hearings and debates actually began in the 1920s, although it wasn’t until 1970 that the House authorized limited radio and TV broadcasts of committee hearings. Floor debate was still off-limits, however.
In October 1977, the House, led by then-Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin (D-Calif.), passed a resolution authorizing broadcasts of floor procedures. Then-Rep. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) was the first Member shown making a floor speech when C-SPAN went on the air on March 19, 1979.
Although C-SPAN will never be a threat to any of the major networks or even the big cable-news channels in terms of total viewership, it has joined the short list of “most trusted” news sources held in common by Democrats, Republicans and independents, according to the Pew 2004 Media Consumption and Believability Study.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and C-SPAN’s approach to politics — nonpartisan and gavel-to-gavel — has been imitated repeatedly at the state and local level, with at least 19 states allowing similar broadcasts.
Ethics Reform Act, 1989
The 1989 Ethics Reform Act, a major addition to Congressional ethics rules, included several important provisions that prompted major institutional changes that affected officeholders.
A bipartisan House ethics task force, headed by then-Reps. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) and Lynn Martin (R-Ill.), issued recommendations that became the heart of the bill, including “a total ban on honoraria, revisions to the outside earned-income limits, new post-employment restrictions, changes to the gift and travel limits, and financial disclosure revisions,” according to the House Ethics Manual.
The honoraria ban was a particularly important feature of the 1989 measure, and the Senate followed suit in 1992. Although a federal judge later struck down the honoraria ban for executive branch employees, both chambers left the ban in place.
The House leadership softened the honoraria ban for lawmakers by approving a huge salary boost for Members — a roughly $30,000 pay raise.
Don Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a 28-year veteran of Capitol Hill, said the honoraria ban was particularly noteworthy because it was adopted shortly after former Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) resigned amid ethics problems in July 1989.
Up until that point, Members could receive $2,000 from special interests for making speeches on issues they actually worked on. This practice led watchdogs to assail lawmakers for abusing the system.
The honoraria ban “removed a large taint on the House, and later the Senate,” said Wolfensberger, who left the House in 1996 after serving as chief of staff for the Rules Committee.
The Republican Revolution, 1994-95
The GOP takeover of the House in 1994, besides being a watershed moment in American political history, also prompted major changes in the organization of the House — especially the centralization of power in the hands of the Speaker and other top party leaders, as well as the end of truly independent committee chairmen.
Led by newly installed Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), the Republican majority worked to implement its promise to radically change how the House was run. In many respects, they were as good as their word.
Major rules changes included the banning of proxy voting in House committees, six-year term limits for committee and subcommittee chairmen and a guaranteed vote on a motion to recommit for the minority party for bills on the House floor.
In addition, 1995 saw the passage of the Lobbying Disclosure Act, which imposed new disclosure rules on lobbyists, and the Congressional Accountability Act, which applied 11 federal workplace and anti-discrimination laws to Congress for the first time.
Passage of such measures briefly made Gingrich and GOP lawmakers the darlings of the reform movement, although senior Republicans had to be prodded by Democrats into a near-total ban on gifts to lawmakers and aides.
But Gingrich soon found himself the target of a House ethics probe, and as the GOP approached one decade in control of the House — and became more accustomed to wielding political power — the party fell out of favor with ethics reformers.
House Ethics Task Force Revisions, 1997
This bipartisan task force, chaired by then- Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) and Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), was able to bring to an end a years-long ethics war in the House, although government watchdog groups argue that it actually made Members less accountable to the public than before.
Following a long battle over Gingrich’s ethics case — and retaliation against Democratic leaders by Republicans infuriated by the Democratic campaign against the Speaker — both sides agreed that it was time for a halt.
Livingston and Cardin led a joint panel that rewrote the ethics rules from top to bottom. One of the major changes the task force proposed, and the House later adopted, was a ban on outside groups being able to file ethics complaints. Watchdog groups complained bitterly — Congressional Accountability Project Director Gary Ruskin, a leading ethics watchdog, called it “The Corrupt Politicians Protection Act of 1997” — but leaders in both parties supported the proposal.
And the new policy held for several years. It wasn’t until 2004 that a major ethics complaint, this time against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), was filed. The complaint was submitted by then-Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas), who had lost a primary brought about by DeLay’s re-redistricting plan in Texas, and it resulted in DeLay being admonished twice by the ethics committee. When combined with another admonishment in a separate probe by the ethics panel, it was seen as a major blow to DeLay.
Republicans retaliated by ramming through three ethics-rules changes on the first day of the 109th Congress that would have prevented another complaint like the one Bell filed from being taken up by the ethics panel.
Democrats, in turn, refused to let the ethics committee organize in early 2005, and while Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) eventually allowed the House to repeal the new rules, the ethics committee is still not functioning at press time, as the two sides continue to squabble over staffing issues.