House/Senate Historians - 3

The following is from the Senate and House Historians message board conversation with Richard Baker and Raymond Smock that took place in October, 1994; it continues to be relevant to the study of US government today.

Part 3 of 3

Subj: "Most Respected" 94-10-13 18:01:19 EST From: RSmock

It is difficult to answer your question about the "most respected" legislator for several reasons. First of all, I must decline to answer the question if it is focused on the current members since it is not my role to go beyond history and into current events, as I explained in my answer to JimGrealis under the heading "History vs Current Events." But even when I go back into history the question doesn't get any easier. In the House there have been more than 10,000 persons who have served in the past 200 years. Many of them have been outstanding legislators who have had the respect of their colleagues. Others had great influence on the national agenda and also had the respect of their colleagues even though they themselves were not known for any specific legislation. For example, the powerful Speaker of the House at the turn of the century was Joseph Gurney Cannon of Illinois. Cannon was in the House over 40 years but I don't think there is a single piece of legislation that bears his name. His power and influence was often directed toward blocking Progressive Era legislation. He said the country was in great shape and didn't need any legislation! "Uncle Joe" as he was known by friend and foe alike, was finally stripped of much of his power to determine the legislative agenda in 1911. Among those who rose against him was a member of his own party, George Norris of Nebraska, who went on to the Senate in 1913, where he became one of the greatest legislators of all time, even though he didn't make the BIG FIVE list that the Senate Historian described.

If I had to pick a short list of great House legislators, it would include James Madison, Henry Clay, James. G. Blaine, and Sam Rayburn. There are many others who could be included from both the House and the Senate.

One of the difficulties with your question is that it asks for the "most." That is a difficult thing to determine in politics. If you asked me a certain kind of question about sports, such as who hit the most home runs in a single season, or who had the most strikeouts, these are questions that can be answered with great accuracy. But if you were to ask me who was the most effective or the most respected baseball player, or the greatest baseball player, there would be plenty of room for disagreement. Likewise, to say which of the 10,000 House members is or was the "most respected" is not something that lends itself to a quick and easy answer.

Furthermore, no single member of the House or Senate is able to work his or her will alone. Politics is the art of compromise. Good legislation often takes years of give and take and requires the support of many individuals in Congress, not to mention the cooperation of the President before a bill can become a law.

Subj: Re:Pork Barrel 94-10-13 18:14:23 EST From: RSmock

Again, if this question about pork barrel legislation is directed at the current Congress, I am not in a position to answer that because it is not my role to make partisan political statements. But I can say that "Pork" is not an easy thing to define, even though most of us would agree that we recognize it when we see it. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "Pork" or "Pork Barrel" as legislation designed to benefit a specific locale in order to gain the favor of the politician's constituents. Often the success of a member of the House or Senate is based on their ability to "bring home the bacon, " that is to say, to deliver federal dollars to their district or state. Often these projects are of great benefit to a locality, while other times they seem like a lavish waste of money. One person's idea of pork may be another person's definition of good legislation. What some may see as a waste of taxpayer's dollars others may see as a remedy to a real need. This is the very heart of what politics is all about--determining the priorities of the country and appropriating money to meet those needs. Since there always has been great disagreement about how tax dollars are spent, be it at the local, state, or federal level, there is always going to be disagreement about the definition of what is or is not pork barrel legislation. If you live in Vermont you may not think that Mississippi needs a new Interstate Highway. If you live in Alaska you might think that spending billions on a subway for Washington DC is pork.

Subj: Filibusters 94-10-14 10:47:29 EST From: RonA419873

Will rules about filibusters ever change? This seems to cause so much gridlock.

Subj: Re:Filibusters 94-10-15 15:36:41 EST From: BakerUSS

Historically, the Senate has been a very conservative institution--as the Constitution's framers intended. Change comes, but it comes slowly and "deliberately." In the first Senate of 1789, members filibustered over the issue of where to locate the nation's capital. Back then, the Senate had only 22 members and a fairly leisurely schedule--so there was plenty of time for "extended debate."

When several of those early senators tried to silence members whose views they did not like, the Senate as a whole decided that it had no authority to cut off debate, unless the person speaking was offending another individual. (There never has been a rule specifically providing for filibusters.) For the next 100 years, the right of unlimited debate was taken pretty much for granted in the Senate--a body that was expected to defend minority views and serve as a cooling influence on legislation passed by the House of Representatives.

Until the 1890s, filibusters were seldom used. Only then did senators begin to find extended debate attractive as a way to block bills they did not like. From the 1890s to 1917, the Senate tried without success to construct rules that would end very lengthy debates without seriously threatening a member's right to fully air his (there were no women senators until 1922) views.

The first significant reform came in 1917, during the emergency conditions of World War I. The Senate agreed to a rule that would close off debate ("cloture") on a particular bill if 2/3ds of the members voted to do so. Even after agreeing to such a limitation, however, senators could still speak for a total of 100 hours before the actual bill had to be voted on. In more recent times, that 100-hour provision has been reduced to 30 hours, and the 2/3ds requirement has been reduced to 3/5ths, but no progress has been made in reducing the 3/5ths to the simple majority (51 votes, rather than 60) that is required for passing most other legislation.

Some senators are reluctant to agree to a rules change making it easier to cut off debate because they realize that some day the filibuster may be the only weapon available to kill or modify legislation that might be damaging to their respective states or political beliefs.

Subj: House Doesn't Filibuster 94-10-17 16:23:12 EST From: RSmock

The Senate Historian has provided an excellent answer to the question about filibusters. But I can't pass up the opportunity to point out that one of the major differences between the House and the Senate is the amount of time allowed for debate. Because the House is more than four times larger than the Senate it has long had rules that limit the time for debate. While the House did occassionally resort to the filibuster in the early nineteenth century, its use was rare, and by 1811 the House regularly employed a parliamentary device used since the First Congress in 1789 to call the "previous question," which closes debate and brings an issue to an immediate vote. You can watch C-SPAN and see every day during floor proceedings how "the previous question" is used. The House has strict limitations on the time each bill can be debated, often no more than an hour, with 30 minutes assigned to each side. During general debate a member can speak only once. Often the time given a member may be as little as 30 seconds! The time of debate in the House is remarkably different from that of the Senate. This does not mean, however, that the House does not sometimes employ delaying tactics that slow down the passage of a bill. But seldom do the delays result in a slowdown of more than a few hours or a few days.

Subj: 27th Amendment 94-10-21 06:01:30 EST From: SteveR8563

We are engaged in a discussion about the validity of the 27th amendment. I have been told that the Amendment was certified as valid in May 1992. The question is, has it been challenged in court? Does our Constitution have 26 or 27 amendments? Hope you can help!

Steve Reich

Subj: 27th Amendment Alive and Well 94-10-21 09:33:46 EST From: RSmock

Steve: Yes, there is a 27th Amendment to the Constitution and it is valid and operational. See the reply by BakerUSS in the Ask Senate Aids bulletin board, which provides an excellent answer to the question. Before the requisite number of states had ratified this amendment there was much legal discussion about the validity of the amendment which took two centuries to obtain the requisite number of states for ratification. But there was no time limit specified for ratification and this is the opinion that has prevailed. Amendments that have been proposed in recent years often have a seven year time limit for ratification. But this was not the case with the 27th Amendment, originally proposed in 1789. Given the political climate at the time of ratification, and the general public opposition that has always accompanied a congressional pay raise, there was very little opposition from Congress and no law suits that I am aware of. The one odd twist to the passage of the amendment that did cause a stir in the press at the time was the manner in which the amendment was certified. The former Archivist of the United States, Don W. Wilson, announced the ratification once he had received the official papers from enough states, 40 of 50. Some political analysts and lawyers questioned his authority to make such an announcement without consulting Congress first. But this has not been challenged. All official copies of the U.S. Constitution, including those authorized by Congress, now contain the 27th Amendment, which simply reads: "No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened." A remaining unresolved question is whether this amendment applies to government wide COLAs or Cost of Living Adjustments. If, for example, government salaries are increased 3% across the board does the Constitution require that members of Congress have to wait two years or however long it is to the next election before they can receive it. So far members of Congress have taken no increase since the amendment was ratified in 1992.

Subj: Third Grade Gov't. 94-10-25 08:44:42 EST From: Catawba S

We are studying government in our class. These are some questions we had. How many laws has the Senate passed this year?

How large is the Capitol Building?

Which president vetoed the most and which was the first to veto a law?

Are there any old laws that are really ridiculous today?

Who are the Chief Justices?

Thanks from Mrs. Bolick's class in North Carolina.

Subj: Re:Third Grade Gov't. 94-10-25 16:32:54 EST From: BakerUSS

How many laws has the Senate passed this year

Together, the Senate and House of Representatives have passed 118 laws so far this year. By itself, the Senate has approved 318 bills and resolutions. Some of these were also approved by the House and are included in the 118 number. Some of the resolutions the Senate passed do not have to be passed by the House because they are used by the Senate to express its own opinion about an issue it considers to be important.

How large is the Capitol Building

The Capitol sits on 175,000 square feet (4 acres) of ground. The building is 751 feet long and, at its widest place, 350 feet across. From the bottom step on the east front to the top of the Statue of Freedom, it is 287 feet high. There are at least 550 rooms to clean and 658 windows to wash.

Which president vetoed the most laws?

Franklin Roosevelt, during his 12 years in office vetoed 635 acts of Congress.

Who was the first president to veto a law?

George Washington. He vetoed 2 laws. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did not veto any acts of Congress.

Are there any old laws that are ridiculous today?

Probably, but I can't name any. Congress tries to update or eliminate old laws that no longer make any sense for modern times, but I am sure they have missed some.

Who are the chief justices?

The first chief justice was John Jay, who served from 1789 to 1795. The current chief justice, William Rehnquist, has served in that position since 1986. He is the 16th chief justice. There have been a total of 107 justices, including the chief justices.

Subj: Biggest turnover to date 94-10-27 06:30:10 EST From: JimGrealis


What has been the biggest turnover in seats-House and Senate that has ever taken place? It may very well be that it could get beaten this year, at least according to the media.

Thanks Mr. G' History class 8th grade

Subj: Re:Biggest turnover to date 94-10-27 17:13:54 EST From: BakerUSS

Senators were elected by state legislatures until 1913, when the Constitution was amended to provide that all senators would be elected directly by the people. Since direct popular election began in 1914, the largest shift of Senate seats from one party to another took place as a result of the election of 1958 when the Democrats picked up 12 seats previously held by Republicans plus 2 from the newly admitted State of Alaska. Later in 1959, the Democrats gained two more seats with the admission of Hawaii.

The election of 1946 shifted 13 seats to the Republicans.

The most recent large turnover occurred in 1980 when the Republicans gained 12 seats. This gave them control of the Senate until the election of 1986, when they lost 8 seats.

And so it goes.

Subj: Re:Biggest House Turnover 94-11-01 14:31:28 EST From: RSmock

Since World War 2 there have been only three elections where the turnover in the House of Representatives exceeded more than 100 members. These were: 1946 (107 members), 1948 (118 members), and 1992 (110 members). Turnover is a result of several things: the number of members retiring or running for other office, those defeated in primary elections, and those defeated in the general election. The largest turnover in House history was in 1842, when there were 133 open seats due to retirement or members seeking other office, one member not renominated, and 31 defeated in the general election for a total of 165 members. Also, remember that in 1842 the size of the House was smaller than it is today, with only 232 total members as opposed to 435 in the 20th century House. So the 1842 turnover was a much higher percentage.

Subj: Goodbye for Now 94-11-01 14:41:42 EST From: RSmock

Dear Friends on the Scholastic Network: It has been a real treat for me to be able to take part in this Scholastic Network special event for October. I enjoyed the opportunity to answer your questions about the House of Representatives. You asked some very good questions and I hope my answers were satisfactory. Even though I am going off line now, I am always available by telephone or letter and I am always willing to be of help to you if you have questions about the history of the House. You can write to me at the Office of the Historian, H2-385 Ford House Office Building, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington DC 20515. Telephone 202-225-1153. I hope you will always be interested in learning about the Congress. It is a fascinating place, where history is made everyday. I am very lucky to be here to see it all, and I am always willing to share information about the House. All the best to each of you!


Ray Smock, House Historian