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A Modern, Streamlined Institution

August 2, 1946

Robert La Follette

The bill-signing ceremony on August 2, 1946, was a relatively modest affair. Five lawmakers, including Everett Dirksen, looked on as President Harry Truman signed the Legislative Reorganization Act into law. Though the bill received little fanfare, it brought about a sea change: transforming Congress from an old-fashioned institution ill-equipped, many believed, to confront the challenges of the 20th century, into a branch of government fit to legislate in a nuclear age.

The effort to reform Congress had been a decade in the making. In the mid-1930s, the American Political Science Association appointed a committee to study legislative branch deficiencies and invited several members of Congress to serve on it. During World War II, spurred on by waning public confidence in the legislative branch, Congress created the Joint Committee on the Reorganization of Congress and appointed Senator Robert La Follette, Jr., of Wisconsin to chair it.

La Follette, Jr., also known as “Young Bob,” was the son of a distinguished political family. His mother was a suffragist and peace activist. Bob’s reverence for the Senate as an institution developed as a young man when he served as an assistant and political advisor to his father, the former governor, senator, and presidential candidate from Wisconsin. When his father passed away in 1925, Bob was elected to fill his vacant seat. Where his father had been flamboyant and outspoken, Bob was more reserved. What he lacked in charisma, he made up for with a strong work ethic. Young Bob supported New Deal programs and championed progressive causes, especially efforts to protect workers’ rights to organize.

As chairman of the Joint Committee on the Reorganization of Congress, La Follette worked prodigiously to promote institutional reform among his colleagues, offering practical solutions such as enforcing existing Senate rules to improve floor attendance. After nearly a year of investigation, La Follette’s committee introduced the Legislative Reorganization Act to modernize and streamline congressional operations. When passed, the bill reshaped Congress. In the Senate, standing committees were reduced by half, from 35 to 16, and chairmen were required to regularize committee business, hold open sessions, and establish formal record-keeping procedures. Congressional salaries—frozen for 10 years—were increased 25 percent, and lawmakers became eligible for federal retirement program benefits.

Noting Congress’s increasing dependence throughout World War II “upon the expert advice given it by the executive departments,” the reorganization act provided senators and committees with professional staff assistance. Prior to 1946, House and Senate committees employed only 356 employees, and of them, a majority were clerks and janitors. The bill allowed committees to hire four non-partisan professional staff and provided members with one administrative assistant each to “carry the routine load of his office and to meet the individual problems of his constituents.” The Legislative Research Service—the forerunner to the Congressional Research Service—was also expanded.

The new law ushered in an era of greater efficiency, thereby relieving—temporarily—the crushing workload. Perhaps not surprisingly, the law had some unintended consequences. Following a nearly 10-year hiring spree, Senate staff doubled in size. Where to put them all? Office overcrowding prompted the Senate to draw up plans for a new building, and in 1958 the New Senate Office Building, today's Dirksen Building, officially opened.