Events

The Turn of the Century Congress: Then and Now

June 25, 1999 // 12:00am

One hundred years ago, Congress and the presidency were forming the roles they have had ever since, with all the attendant problems, strengths, and weaknesses, according to scholars, journalists, and a former Member of Congress at a June seminar at the Center.

The key change was a shift of policymaking authority from Congress to the modern presidency, which began to emerge in the final quarter of the nineteenth century under Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison and was realized by William McKinley, president from 1897 to 1901, according to historian Charles W. Calhoun. In the mid-nineteenth century, presidents had shied away from supporting legislation, which was regarded as Congress's business. But McKinley was able to lead policymaking in Washington through good relations with Congress, where he had served for thirteen years. McKinley further bolstered his authority by going beyond Washington to make his message known to the country. First, McKinley cultivated relations with the press more than any of his predecessors (for example, he assigned a White House room to the press for the first time). Second, he went around the press, directly to the people by undertaking extensive speechmaking tours around the country, said Calhoun.

McKinley's successor, Theodore Roosevelt, took McKinley's strategies even further and is usually regarded as the first modern president. But Roosevelt eventually prompted resentment and reaction in Congress. Calhoun recalled,

As House speaker Joseph Cannon [speaker from 1903 to1911] put it, "That fellow at the other end of the Avenue wants everything, from the birth of Christ to the death of the devil." Stand-pat Republicans such as Cannon increasingly opposed Roosevelt's progressive agenda, and as he entered his last year in office one associate noted, "The feeling at the Capitol against anything and everything the President wants, is very bitter."
Congress's own workings were also undergoing transformation, guided by two powerful House speakers, both Republican, Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine (speaker in 1889-1890 and 1895-1899), and Joseph Cannon of Illinois, according to political scientist Roger Davidson. "Reed was probably one of the greatest legislative tacticians ever," said Davidson. Reed's brilliant parliamentary maneuvers brought an end to minority obstructionism and paved the way for legislative action by a disciplined and focused majority party. Cannon built on Reed's strong speakership and party leadership.

Cannon was, however, ultimately toppled by a group of progressive insurgents in his own party who joined with Democrats in a series of tactics that restored the importance of the House's committees and ultimately removed Cannon from chairmanship of the Rules Committee. The House's committee organization dominated its activities for most of the twentieth century, although in recent years party leadership made a comeback.

Press attention had shifted from Congress to the presidency during the nineteenth century, according to Calhoun. Donald Ritchie, associate historian of the United States Senate, took up the story of press coverage of Congress during the twentieth century itself. At the turn of the century, sensationalist reporting on Congress, which had a history extending back to the founding of the republic and the prevalence of party-controlled newspapers, characterized much press treatment in the muckraking magazines and newspapers of the day. Representatives often blamed the press for contributing to its low regard in the eyes of the public, Ritchie said.

But media presence on Capitol Hill and coverage of Congress have grown as Congress became more a full-time, professional body grappling with increasingly complex problems, Ritchie noted. And a key turning point came in the 1970s, when television coverage of Congress made it possible for representatives to take their message directly to the people. New uses of television contributed to the ascendancy of conservative Republican leaders such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich and current Senate majority leader Trent Lott, Ritchie said.

Former Colorado representative David Skaggs commented on governance today, which is threatened, he said, by a "self-flagellating Congress" in which representatives not only publicly criticize and attack the institution but fail to stand up for its constitutional powers and prerogatives. The problem is compounded by what Skaggs called representatives' "serving with strangers" -- the fact that members hardly know each other any more because of their eagerness to spend time in their constituencies. Finally, Skaggs expressed concern over declining voter turnout, or what he called, "voting alone," as a threat to democratic governance: "The fall-off in voting is disturbing and insidious, and must be addressed."

Jackie Koszczuk of Congressional Quarterly noted the irony of historian Newt Gingrich's being "blind to historical forces" and being out-maneuvered and out-lasted by lawyer Bill Clinton. Gingrich "failed to realize that the presidency is a bully pulpit from which the president can take his case directly to the people, and will win every time if he is challenged," Koszczuk observed.

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