March 23, 1987 12:00 PM

For nearly 200 years the great institution that is the United States Congress has rolled along through war and peace, depression and prosperity, social upheaval and political scandal. Since the First Congress convened in New York City on March 4, 1789 with just 21 members present, the people’s government has survived moments of low comedy and high drama, weathered gunfights and duels, endured filibusters, ushered in Prohibition and women’s suffrage, and given rise to Civil Rights legislation. Its halls have rung with the words of orators like John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Everett Dirksen. With the historic 100th session gathering steam, it seems only appropriate to review the colorful past of this American institution—and contemplate what the future may bring to Capitol Hill.

The Halls Still Ring With the Echoes of Master Orators

As anyone knows who has ever spent a day watching C-SPAN’s coverage of Congress, the age of great American orators is long past. The bracing stem-winders of William Jennings Bryan’s day have evolved into labored disquisitions producing in the listeners a condition akin to narcolepsy.

To hear the truly great voices that have rung through the halls of Congress, one must summon the shades of men like Massachusetts’ Fisher Ames, who graduated from Harvard College at 16 and went on to lead the Federalist Party in the first Congress. In 1796 the Federalists were in bitter disagreement with the Jeffersonian Republicans over relations between the U.S. and England. On April 28 the eloquent Ames—weakened by the disease that would claim him 12 years later—took to the floor to plead for a treaty that would settle disputes with the British and spoke some of the richest cadences since the King James Version:

There is, I believe, no member who will not think his chance to be a witness of the consequences greater than mine. If, however, the vote shall pass to reject, and a spirit should rise, as it will, with the public disorders, to make confusion worse confounded, even I, slender and almost broken as my hold upon life is, may outlive the government and Constitution of my country.

Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, a powerful triumvirate who held forth during the great debates on expansionism and states rights, were prodigiously gifted orators. During a debate in 1830 the brooding Webster affirmed the sovereignty of the federal government over the states in stirring language:

When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union…but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart—Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.

In the following decades, the questions of sectionalism and slavery were taken up by oratorical masters like Charles Sumner, Jefferson Davis and Stephen A. Douglas, whose debates with Lincoln in their 1858 contest for an Illinois Senate seat proved important for both men. The incumbent Douglas kept his Senate seat—but his opponent bested Douglas in the 1860 presidential election.

If Lincoln set the standard in the Civil War period, Bryan was the definitive voice when the 19th-century golden age of oratory was on the wane. His famous denunciation of the gold standard in 1896 demonstrated that the furthest horizon of oratory had been reached—and then some:

You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

Many of the notable speakers of our time have distinguished themselves mainly for stamina in that peculiar, nonstop form of speech known as the filibuster. The tactic of talking Congress to a standstill as a last legislative resort has a long and eccentric history, with its roots in the Roman Senate and the British House of Commons. Adopted in 1790 by the fledgling U.S. Senate, delaying tactics were used to squash an attempt to move the nation’s capital from New York to Pennsylvania. One of the most flamboyant early practitioners of the filibuster was Virginia’s John Randolph (1773-1833), who belted tempestuous tirades in soprano, strutting about the floor of the Senate with his slave and foxhounds in tow. A self-declared descendant of Pocahontas, Randolph was reputed to be an impotent madman; during his soliloquies defending slavery, for example, he drank with abandon and shouted for a retainer to pour more liquor.

Republican Sen. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin was one of the foremost prodigies. During one bitter battle over a currency bill in 1908, he held the floor for 18 hours and 23 minutes, fortifying himself during the marathon with eggnog from the Senate restaurant. He rejected one glass, suspecting it was poisoned; it proved to contain a lethal dose of ptomaine. That filibuster went on for 28 days and ended only when the bill’s supporters devised a cruel game of blindman’s buff. Sightless Sen. Thomas Gore (D., Okla.) yielded the floor after being told that his relief, William “Gumshoe Bill” Stone, was in the chamber; in fact, Stone had been summoned to the cloakroom.

The grand tradition of filibustering continued in the hands of maestros like Southerners Huey Long and Strom Thurmond. In 1935 “Kingfish” Long (D., La.) delivered one of the most bizarre marathon orations in Senate history. For 15½ hours, he offered up such effluvia as recipes for pot likker—reminding his listeners 13 times to wash the turnip greens—Roquefort dressing and fried oysters.

In battling the 1957 Civil Rights Act, Thurmond (R., S.C.) held the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes, during which he read, among other things, the election laws of all 48 states. His record still stands, but the cause on which he expended so much lung power was lost.

Violence, Scandal and Disgrace Touched Its History

Human frailties can betray any institution, and in two tumultuous centuries Congress has surely seen its share of scoundrels, scandals, follies and violence. Intertwined with the affairs of state, the sometimes tragic, sometimes picaresque public and private dramas played out there have given America’s political history a fascinating subtext whose themes are time honored: lust, greed, hubris, vengeance and a craving for the power whose locus lies within the white marble edifice on Capitol Hill.

Sometimes words failed: The victim of the most infamous intramural assault in Congress was Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner (above), whose antislavery tirade on May 22, 1856 brought down the wrath of Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina. Finding Sumner at his desk in the Senate chamber, Brooks delivered his rebuttal to Sumner’s head, beating him unconscious with a thick, gold-topped cane. Gravely injured, Sumner was unable to return to the Senate for four years. A move to expel Brooks from the House failed.

Thus did the early Congresses reflect the raw temper of the nation. The House was known as the “Bear Garden” because of its wild, partisan quarrels. By 1835 Vice-President Martin Van Buren was said to have strapped on a brace of pistols before presiding over the Senate, and many members of both houses were given to carrying a derringer in a trouser pocket.

The last word in some debates was sounded by dueling pistols. On April 8, 1826, Henry Clay faced off against John Randolph of Roanoke in a duel over states’ rights. Both men missed their first shot. On the second, Randolph fired in the air while Clay’s bullet whistled through his opponent’s coat. Uninjured, the two men shook hands and honor was satisfied. But most such confrontations did not end so well. In 1838 Rep. Jonathan Cilley of Maine was killed on the third shot by the rifle-wielding William Graves of Kentucky—an incident so shocking to Cilley’s colleagues that a law was passed banning dueling in the District of Columbia.

The body impolitic: The nation’s capital, being no purer than any other place, has had its share of philanderers: Thomas Jefferson had his mistress at Monticello, President Warren Harding two extramarital flings, and in 1976 Ohio Rep. Wayne Hays’s secretary Elizabeth Ray was found to have done all her House work in his bedroom. But no capital misbehavior has ever come so clamorously to light as that of Arkansas Rep. Wilbur Mills. In 1974 the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee was 65, married, a veteran of 35 years on the Hill and, so far as the public knew, the very model of rectitude. His drinking problem and his good-time-Charlie nights on the town were hushed up until the eventful night of Oct. 7. Mills and Annabella Battistella (left), then a 38-year-old stripper who called herself Fanne Foxe, “the Argentine Firecracker,” were arguing in his car when she suddenly jumped into Washington’s Tidal Basin. Police retrieved her and dutifully wrote Wilbur’s name in the blotter as a party to the dispute. Two months later Mills, not yet contrite, flew to Boston to watch Fanne perform. The public spectacle was too much for his colleagues. Mills resigned from his committee and left politics. He later sought treatment for alcoholism and declared, “Fanne is all behind me.”

Target of opportunity: Congress has been attacked several times in its 200 years, but at no time more viciously than on March 1, 1954, when Puerto Rican nationalists above, right) managed to stage a terrorist attack from the Visitors’ Gallery of the House. As they opened fire with automatic pistols on the 243 members then in attendance, Republican Speaker Joe Martin of Massachusetts reacted speedily: “The House is adjourned! Let’s get the hell out of here!” Five congressmen were wounded, none fatally. The four terrorists received long prison sentences but were granted clemency by President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.

The Capitol has also been the site of various attempted assassinations and bombings. On July 2, 1915 a homemade device planted by a German-born instructor at Cornell University exploded in the Senate reception area, demolishing two rooms and crippling the Capitol switchboard. Not until 1971—when left-wing extremists from the Weather Underground arranged a blast that ripped open a men’s room in the Senate—did bombers strike again. Twelve years later, three pounds of dynamite exploded 30 feet from the Senate chamber, causing $250,000 worth of damage. A group protesting U.S. military actions claimed responsibility. Security officials have since installed a metal detector to discourage bomb-bearing visitors.

The sharpest sting: Only South Carolina’s Rep. John Jenrette could have easily surpassed Wilbur Mills in the race down the slippery slope. First, in 1980, there was Abscam, a clever sting operation in which FBI agents, posing as Arab sheiks bearing bribes, eventually sent Jenrette, five other congress-men and a senator to prison. Then Jenrette’s wife, Rita, now 36, went public with confessions of her drunken sprees with John, including a passionate tryst on the Capitol steps. Rita (above, with Zombie Island Massacre film crew in Jamaica) went on to get a divorce, pose nude for a girlie magazine, star in B-movies and pen a novel. She also wrote her life story, a cautionary tale about Washington in which she painted Congress as “a world of thirsts that can’t be quenched…. The drug habits, the drinking problems, the mistresses, the boyfriends, the broken homes attest to that.”

A Stirring Passage from the Horseback Era to the TV Age

Congress has been a career-long preoccupation for author and political scientist Hugh Gregory Gallagher, 54. As a top aide to the late Sen. E.L. (Bob) Bartlett(D., Alaska)in the 1960s, he was an inside observer of Congress, and later, as a consultant, he advised the Senate on changes in its procedures. In 1969 Gallagher published a book on the Senate, Advise and Obstruct, that won him a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize. From his perspective as a polio paraplegic, Gallagher wrote FDR’s Splendid Deception. Now a scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Georgetown University, Gallagher shared his reflections on a hundred Congresses with correspondent Marsha Dubrow.

How has the character of Congress changed in almost 200 years?

The first Congress was mostly a group of gentlemen farmers and scholars. They tended to be well-to-do. Two centuries ago it was a sacrifice to be a member of Congress. It took days, weeks, even months to get to wherever Congress was meeting, riding horseback or in a carriage over bad roads, frequently in difficult weather. Even during Lincoln’s time, it took California members six to nine weeks to reach Washington. In 1812 the frontiersmen took over. They were a new generation, people with a Jacksonian sense of hard politics and lots of trading. The Congress today still runs on those principles.

In what way is Congress most different now from 100 years ago?

Because of television, being a congressman is a lot more glamorous. Today you tend to get performers—pretty boys who are concerned about how they look and come across—rather than policymakers; they are people who are often more interested in the polls, in campaigning and winning than in legislating. We tend to get people who are there to have their egos massaged, and in some cases because they can’t do as well elsewhere.

Are you saying members of Congress are overpaid?

Their salaries are not that large but the perks are great: virtually free transportation, use of committee expenses for travel and entertaining. And it’s not just the money and perks, it’s the importance they have come to attach to themselves. Over the years members of Congress have become almost like little kings. Each is surrounded by a large staff, by attendants whose job is to make them feel important.

Is running for Congress increasingly for the young, rich and attractive?

No, there are many members of Congress who don’t fit the Jack Kennedy/Jack Kemp image. Having said that, though, I think it’s alarming that so many of them, particularly in the Senate, tend to be people who are good-looking, good on TV, understand the polls and use the polls the way doctors use the pulse.

How big a part has corruption played in the history of Congress?

There were periods when many members were corrupt. After the Civil War especially, the Senate was composed of people who were understood to represent certain major interests, such as railroads, waterways, iron or steel. Lobbyists talked quite openly of the senators they owned. The Congress has always represented the best and the worst. But it always also contained the forces and leaders who, using the Congress’ investigative powers, have brought down violators of the law.

To what extent does money talk to the 100th Congress?

I’m not necessarily talking about old-fashioned, under-the-table bribes. But the current system of campaign donations—Political Action Committee [PAC] money—is a corrupting business. Members of Congress argue that they can’t be bought for $1,000. Maybe not, but they can be bought for a $100,000 contribution by a corporation through 100 separate donations. People who want to influence Congress find ways of getting around restrictions.

Is there too much “pork barrel,” too much expenditure on members’ pet projects?

I don’t think so and I don’t think it has changed much over the years. Pork barrel is what the other members of Congress want for their states, not what you Want for yours. But it was pork barrel that built the roads and canals that opened the American West, that extended college education across the country. It may not be immediately clear to people in, say, Boston why they should contribute tax money to fund highways in Oklahoma, but the result is the building of a strong national economy.

How has the balance of power changed between the legislative and executive branches in recent years?

Adlai Stevenson said, “Power corrupts, but absence of power corrupts absolutely.” Congress hasn’t had much power since it was stunned by the 1980 elections. It was not so much that Reagan was elected but that the pillars of the Senate were defeated after a generation of Democratic control. Probably not since the Congress of 1812 have we had so many people without seniority holding major positions of responsibility in Congress. At first the lawmakers gave the President virtually everything he asked for because that was the mood of the people. But Congress is always waiting to pounce, and once it sees that a President is vulnerable, the Congress will reassert the balance between the branches.

How does Congress regain lost ground?

Congress is not a wimpdom. It has saved the system repeatedly—in the Teapot Dome scandal, in Vietnam, in Watergate—and that’s what it’s doing now. We had a bunch of bozos in the White House basement thinking they could act beyond the law. Now Congress is asserting its authority and insisting that it must be consulted. It’s an old, old saga, part of that wondrous balance that the Constitution sets up.

Overall, has Congress done its job?

Congress was created by humans and is populated by humans. Given that limitation it has been a remarkably effective and valuable institution. Many object to its “inefficiency,” but the red tape gives time for national debate, for consensus to develop. Presidents seem annoyed by the need to consult the Senate but unless a President has the Congress with him, he probably doesn’t have the people. Mr. Reagan is finding out that foreign policy that doesn’t have the support of the nation cannot succeed.

What are Congress’ major problems?

The budget process has become so complex and confusing that a good many members of Congress don’t understand how the money is allocated. After passage of a budget resolution, it’s like Christmas—people wake up and find all sorts of little surprises under the tree, including really major things like weapons systems that come and go. There has been such an explosion of staff, facts and figures that Congress is drowning in detail. It shouldn’t be involved in detail but in policy. Staffers are technically trained and the members are dependent on them for help in drafting laws. Increasingly it’s the congressional staff that has the power.

How would you reform Congress?

First, Congress should have a budget session only once every two years, to pass appropriations that would last throughout that Congress. This would allow more time for other issues. Second, since members of Congress are obsessed with raising money for their media campaigns, we should consider systems for funding campaigns exclusively with public money, plus equitable but free TV time. Finally, I don’t see why members of Congress should be treated like rock stars. In the past we’ve had senators like Sam Ervin, Richard Russell or Lister Hill who did their own staff work and didn’t fly around the country every weekend. The old system works damn well. The Congress keeps the President honest and the voters do the same for the Congress.

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