- Grades: 9–12
The following is from the Senate and House Historians'message board conversation with Richard Baker and Raymond Smock, which occurred in October of 1994; it continues to be relevant to the study of the US government today.
Part 1 of 3
Subj: Welcome! 94-10-03 19:03:46 EST
Here's a great opportunity to talk to two of the most knowledgeable people in Washington about Congress. Richard Baker is the Historian for the U.S. Senate, and Raymond Smock is the Historian for the House of Representatives. Both know everything there is to know about these important legislative bodies.
They are especially aware that there are significant differences between the House and Senate. Find out what they are.
Subj: Welcome from the House Historian 94-10-0412:41:49
Greetings everyone. I am looking forward to the month of October and the chance to answer your questions about the legislative branch, especially the House. My good friend Richard Baker, the Senate Historian, will also co-host this month's discussions. This electronic communication is new to both of us. We are excited to be a part of it. We get many questions each day from people all across the country and from members of the press. We will try hard to answer your questions too.
Hope to hear from you soon!
Ray Smock , House Historian
Subj: Welcome from Senate Historian 94-10-04 15:16:30 EST
I am very glad to be participating in this month's discussions. The Senate and House of Representatives each have rich and colorful histories. The framers of the Constitution expected that the two bodies would not always get along, and that has certainly been the case over the past 205 years. Despite this built-in conflict, in times of national crisis the Senate and House have managed to work in relative harmony for the country's best interests.
Many years ago a senator from Florida expressed his view about the interesting people who have served in the Senate by saying that they have included "the great, the near-great, and those who think they are great." I look forward to your questions about the history of your state's representation in the Senate, the Senate chamber and office buildings, any one of the 1,715 former senators (for information about current senators, you can contact their offices directly), and anything else that you think the Senate historian should know .
I will be paying particularly close attention to the answers that my friend Ray Smock, the House Historian, provides, for just as the Senate and House do not always agree, we like to look at the same issue from differing perspectives. In any event, we hope to get some good discussions going, but we promise not to filibuster.
Subj: The Senate 94-10-05 12:25:56 EST
In the last fifty years who do you think was our most influential or powerful Senator. Why did you choose him or her?
As we look at U.S. History since the second world war I thought this might be an intriguing question. many names come to mind but it will be very interesting to read your perspective.
Subj: The House 94-10-05 12:29:22 EST
We would be curious to hear your answer to this question. What has been the most furious debate ever carried on by the House during the last fifty years?
"Furious" might be the wrong term so feel free to interchange "crucial".
Subj: Re:The Senate 94-10-05 14:50:54 EST
During the past 50 years the job of Senate Majority Leader has acquired great influence, although some of the Majority Leaders themselves would question how much power it has. My candidate for the most influential former Majority Leader would be Lyndon Johnson, who held that post from 1955 to 1961. He greatly expanded the Leader's job and exercised great influence over the Senate's legislative agenda (deciding which bills are allowed on the Senate floor for consideration). He had considerable help from other powerful senators of his day, including Carl Hayden of Arizona and Richard Russell of Georgia. There are good recent biographies covering the Senate years of Johnson (Robert Dallek) and Russell (Gilbert Fite). Hayen and Russell exercised great power as chairmen of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Subj: Most Furious Debate 94-10-05 15:48:32 EST
There is a big difference between the most furious and most crucial debate in House history. Hardly a day goes by without some heated debate on an important issue. Most of the time, however, the debates are conducted with great civility and parliamentary formality. The reason for strict rules of debate is to keep the debates from degenerating into shouting matches or fist fights.
The most furious debate took place in 1858 over the admission of Kansas as a free or slave state. It was a prelude to the coming Civil War. In the course of debate two members of the House, Laurence Keitt of South Carolina and Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania exchanged insults. They rushed at each other and started fighting. Soon the entire chamber was in a state of bedlam with more than 50 members fighting or wrestling on the floor. The Sergeant at Arms tried to stop the fighting and the Speaker of the House banged his gavel to no avail. The incident came to an end when one of the brawlers grabbed the hair of William Barksdale of Mississippi only to discover that he had pulled off Barksdale's wig. The members got to laughing over Barksdale's "scalping" and the fight ended.
This incident shows how tense Congress was over the issue of slavery in the years immediately proceeding the Civil War. Congress never did solve the issue with debate and it took the Civil War with its terrible toll of lives before this country could begin to deal with the legacy of slavery.
As to the most crucial debate, that is a much harder question to answer. I don't think I can single out one debate or one vote in the History of the House because Congress is where so many of the nation's crucial decisions are made. History is made here everyday. Certainly the votes on our entry into world war in 1917 and 1941 would have to be on everyone's short list of crucial votes. Sometimes, curiously enough, the most crucial votes are not necessarily the most hotly debated. In 1941 when President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war against Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the vote was almost unanimous. One one person voted against war that day, Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin of Montana, the same person who had cast her vote against war in 1917.
Subj: Consensus-Senate & House 94-10-06 09:43:31 EST
We are not sure if this is a question that you can provide a definite answer to but we would sure like your opinions.
In the news we constantly read about and hear about "Gridlock". Does this really exist or is it something that has been blown out of proportion by the media? Has Congress fallen on to some very difficult times in terms of finding solutions and taking actions or is this business as normal that is getting alot more attention?
Fairview Park H.S. Government classes
Subj: Re:Consensus-Senate & House 94-10-06 13:22:05 EST
Yes gridlock is real, and yes, it is overblown in the media. The drafters of the U.S. Constitution purposely built checks and balances into our system, dividing power not only between the three branches, but in Congress even between a House and Senate. In addition, the development of the two-party system has meant our politicial discourse is often polarized into majority and minority positions on certain key issues.
The built-in inefficieciencies in our government is part of the price we pay to avoid tyranny. Government is often at odds with itself, by design. The late Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill often said "If you want an efficient government, get yourself a dictatorship."
Throughout the history of Congress its critics have often judged it by the process rather than the results of legislation. It is easy to get impatient with Congress, especially if your favorite bill is not making it through to become law. Before the advent of television and instant communication it was sometimes weeks or months before Congressional action filtered out to the people. Today we can watch it unfold daily on television. This has probably raised our awareness of the process of legislation without raising our awareness of all the forces at work behind the scenes. When the country itself is seriously divided on major issues it is not surprising to find the representatives divided too.
Gridlock, the way it is usually defined today, implies that Congress is stalemated and totally unable to function. Congress may be gridlocked on specific bills, such as health care, but it is moving ahead in many other areas. Usually when someone says Congress is gridlocked it means their favorite bill is not doing so well. I think the word Gridlock has to be used with great care and not become an oversimplified term that seems to explain what's wrong with Congress, when actually it explains very little. Ray Smock, House Historian.
Subj: Re: Senate & House 94-10-07 11:36:02 EST
I'm interested in hearing about some of the most amusing events, historically, that happened in House and Senate proceedings. What kind of tales do you have about that?
And another question: we often see on TV today extremely acrimonious discussions of issues, such as health care, from partisans on both sides. It sometimes appears as if it would be impossible for them to ever speak to one another again. Without revealing too much, can you tell us from your viewpoint about how some of these feuds over principles affect/do not affect the ability of our Senators and Representatives to work together?
Subj: Reply to Eadie's Questions 94-10-07 16:14:10 EST
One of my favorite incidents on the floor of the House occurred in the opening days of Congress in 1890. Speaker Thomas B. Reed of Massachusetts was the leader of the Republicans, then in control of the House by a slim majority. Under the rules in those days if a member did not vote he could not be counted for a quorum. If a quorum was not present it meant there were an insufficient number of members to conduct business. Speaker Reed revolutionized the House rules by counting members who were in the chamber whether they voted or not, something that was not done during the first hundred years of Congress. This outraged the Democrats who shouted at the Speaker that he couldn't count them just because they were there. Some members tried to hide under their desks so Reed could not see them. Others tried to leave the chamber but Reed ordered the doors of the chamber locked. While this was a serious matter which changed the way the House established a quorum, I wish I could have been there to see the pandemonium and the behavior of the members who were trying to hide from the Speaker. Most accounts of the episode are pretty funny. One Democrat from Kentucky said to the Speaker: "I deny your right, Mr. Speaker, to count me as present." The Speaker replied: "The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman from Kentucky is present. Does he deny it?" This ended the use of the "disapearing quorum" as a means of the minority to delay the business of the House.
As to your second question about how the members get along after acrimomious debate, it may be surprising to some people to know that members of opposite parties who often go at each other tooth and nail on the floor can actually be friends and get along fine in all other respects but politics. While passions are often high, the members know that they will have many battles and that you can win more friends with honey than with vinegar. On the next piece of legislation an opponent may become a crucial ally. So very few members want to isolate themselves from the members of their own party and the opposite party by letting their political differences dominate or determine the personal friendships they develop as members of the House.
Having said this I should also say that some scholars of Congress have seen a decline in "comity" (social harmony) in recent Congresses. There is a new book on the subject by Eric Uslaner entitled The Decline of Comity in Congress, published by the University of Michigan Press. Eric's thesis is that the hardening of positions he sees since the 1980s and the decline of friendly relations is a reflection of the increase in uncivil behavior in many aspects of American society. He says all of us have to change before government will. It is an interesting point of view and he cites many examples of uncivil behavior. But I will still take the current behavior of members of Congress to that of the rough and tumble early nineteenth century when members often carried pistols on the floor, had fist fights, and even engaged in duels.
Ray Smock, House Historian.
Subj: has it always been this way? 94-10-09 20:30:23 EST
Have there been periods, other than times of national crisis, when the Senate and House have worked together for the country's best interests? A golden age when a great agenda was set and achieved?
I admit to being just a casual observer of the political process, and a little cynical, but I can't escape the impression that the partisan politics we've all seen lately is less than constructive.
Subj: Re:Correction of error 94-10-09 22:33:43 EST
In my repy to Eadie I said that Speaker Thomas B. Reed was from Massachusetts. I don't know what possessed me. Reed was from Maine. I was just in the town of his birth Portland, Maine, two weeks ago. Sorry for the error. Ray Smock
Subj: Re:has it always been this way? 94-10-09 23:00:43 EST
The closest thing Congress had to a "golden age" was probably the First Congress from 1789-1791. That Congress had the task of taking the written words of the Constitution and making them work as a practical government. The first ten amendments to the Constitution also came from that first Congress, the Bill of Rights. But there were even critics of the First Congress, and much work they had hoped to accomplish was left unfinished. Maybe we can get the Senate Historian to comment on the so-called Golden Age of the Senate, more golden, perhaps, for its outstanding leaders and the influence of the Senate on national policy than for any string of accomplishments.
I think it is safe to say that Congress has never really been popular even during the 19th century when it was often the center of power in setting the national agenda. There have, however, been times when public perception of Congress is even more critical than usual and by all standards we are in such a period right now. I think it is a very healthy thing to be skeptical of government, including Congress. In a Republic, where the power is supposed to flow from the people to their elected represenatives, it is alway prudent to be watchful of government. What disturbs me is when skepticism turns to cynicism. Cynics tend to lose interest in making the system work. When this happens the country is ripe for "pretended patriots," as the Founding Fathers called them, those with the quick fixes, who, in the name making government work, are too willing to oversimplify solutions and overstate how bad things are.
Ray Smock, House Historian.