Scholars have defined historical periods of congressional development in various ways, typically focusing on one of the three institutions: committees, political parties, or party leadership. The approach here is to specify time periods based on major developments in all the three institutions. Since political history is rarely neat and tidy, one can certainly imagine different classification schemes and place major developments in different time periods than we will here. Moreover, since we will be skimming the surface of history, some tolerance for omissions is in order.
When the First Congress convened in New York in 1789, there were sixty-five House members, twenty-two Senators, no existing institutional structure, and no organized parties. The Constitution gave few instructions on how to select leaders or how much power they should wield; members were familiar with committees, but they were not mentioned in the Constitution; and the framers were suspicious of political parties. Congress had to develop rules for processing legislation and address three major issues: a bill of rights informally agreed upon during ratification, a financial plan introduced by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and a judicial system. In the next two decades, select committees were formed, the Speaker gained a few parliamentary powers, and partisanship emerged over several issues. The first party “system” took shape, but it lacked the organizational structure that would later define congressional parties. This was the pre-institutional era of Congress.
Since the Continental Congress and the Federal Convention relied heavily on committees, it is no wonder that select committees were created in the First Congress. However, the early congresses relied mainly on select or temporary committees rather than more permanent standing committees. Instead, the earliest congresses seated committees to address specific problems. These temporary, or select, committees were disbanded once the task for which they had been assembled was complete. For example, a select committee on rules established powers for the Speaker of the House, guidelines for legislative proceedings, and rules for debate and amendment in the Committee of the Whole. Another select committee was created to deliberate over a resolution introduced by James Madison to add a bill of rights to the Constitution. (Wolfensberger 2000, Chapter 2) Madison had collected 209 recommendations from the ratifying conventions for amendments to the Constitution. He narrowed them down to nineteen that dealt with individual rights and presented them to the House for consideration on June 8, 1789. Madison called on the House to take up the amendments immediately. By then eleven of thirteen states had ratified the Constitution and Madison said “there is still a great number of our constituents who are dissatisfied with it…” Thus, “We ought not to disregard their inclination, but on principles of amity and moderation, conform to their wishes and expressly declare the great rights of mankind, secured under this Constitution.” (Quoted in Wolfensberger, 2000, 23)
Six weeks later, on July 21, the House passed a motion to create a select committee of 11 members, one from each state, to consider not only Madison’s package, but other amendments proposed by the states. The committee ultimately reported a bill very similar to Madison’s proposal and the House began debate and amendment on August 13. The House proceeded to defeat most of the floor amendments to the select committee bill. The Senate ultimately reduced the list of amendments to twelve. Those were submitted to the states on September 25, 1789, and they ratified ten of the twelve.
The path of the legislation that led to the Bill of Rights reveals several general aspects of congressional committees. The committee was delegated power by the whole House; it was representative of the House; it took time to deliberate; and the House supported the committee’s proposal. Thus, while the House was the final decision maker, it deferred to the committee’s judgment. However, the process was quite rudimentary. For one thing, Madison’s proposal went to a select committee, set up for a specific reason, rather than a standing committee with established jurisdiction and policy expertise. Also, the committee’s bill went straight to the House floor, where it was open to amendment; there was no Rules Committee to specify amendments or time for debate. Finally, there was no organized political party structure and generally weak party leadership. The case illustrates the “pre-institutionalized” House.
Meanwhile, the Senate was void of internal organizing structures during this period. It formed select committees, but the House initiated most bills. The Vice President and then a President pro tempore presided over the Senate, but the position was not significant to chamber decision making. The Federalists had a majority in the Senate, as they did in the House, but there were no organized congressional parties.
Of course, there were exceptions to the pre-institutionalized character of Congress during this period. First, even though both chambers relied on select committees, the House did create the first standing committee in 1795, the Committee on Ways and Means, most likely in order to have a source of financial information independent of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. (Schickler, 2005) Second, the lack of formal party organization did not mean that Congress was nonpartisan. Indeed, shortly after the Constitution was ratified, the Federalists and Republicans were at odds over several important issues. (Connelly, 2010) In 1794, Senator John Taylor of Virginia wrote: “The existence of the two parties in Congress is apparent. The fact is disclosed almost upon every important question. Whether the subject be foreign or domestic—relative to war or peace—navigation or commerce—the magnetism of opposite view draw them wide as the poles asunder.” (Quoted in Davison, Oleszek, and Lee, 2010, 29) Finally, Speaker Theodore Sedgwick, elected in 1799, was the first overtly partisan Speaker. Sedgwick used the office to advance the interests of Federalists, including his support of the Alien and Sedition Acts. (Peters 1990, 30)
The partisan divide subsided after the elections of 1800, when the Jeffersonian Republicans consistently gained sizable majorities in Congress. Political historian Joel Silbey (1989, 130) observes that Republicans “opposed political parties as divisive and feared wily party leaders as dangers to Republican harmony.” Congress also experienced “rapid turnover” in membership during this period; thus “no institutional memory existed nor could the product of experience build up or be sustained.” Although Congress was supreme at a time when the country had lingering concerns about a strong executive, it was defined by “irregular and poor institutional development pertaining the conduct of everyday business.” (Silbey 1989, 130)