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Floor Privileges

December 9, 1869

The matter of Senate Chamber floor access for non-members has provoked controversy for as long as there has been a Senate Chamber. In 1859, when the current chamber opened, with its 600-seat visitors’ galleries, the Senate drastically pruned the lengthy list of officials accorded this privilege in the Old Chamber. The new list was short and simple: senators and Senate officials. Following careful deliberation and loud complaints from the southern side of Capitol Hill, the Senate added a third category: House of Representatives members.

Immediately, the Librarian of Congress wondered why he had been excluded. No provision had been made for justices of the Supreme Court, whose chamber, until 1935, was just down the hall. The mayor of Washington, DC, lobbied to reclaim his privilege. So, too did state and city elected officials, other federal judges, ambassadors, generals, and agency heads. Unable to resist this pressure, the Senate has regularly added—but occasionally subtracted—the titles set forth in today’s Rule 23. The list now includes 25 separate categories, comprising hundreds—perhaps thousands— of individuals.

A related 19th-century congestion problem involved visitors who thronged the floor prior to the convening of each day’s session. On December 9, 1869, when most senators had no other office space but their desk in the Chamber, the Senate adopted a rule directing its sergeant at arms to clear the floor of visitors minutes before going into session.

One frustrated senator explained, "I have to elbow my way through a crowd of people to get to my desk. If I wish to sit down, probably there is somebody occupying my seat. If I wish to talk with one person, there are half a dozen within hearing distance of me." Other senators fervently disagreed. "Suppose we are subjected to a little inconvenience," said one. "Suppose [we are] obliged to elbow [our] way through a crowd, what of it? Who are they but the people, our masters?"

In 1872, as the Senate began to hire clerical staff, it added a new category to its floor access list: "private secretaries of Senators." Before long, journalists and lobbyists began to appear on the floor bearing cards signed by members attesting to their status as "private secretaries of Senators." This tended to inflame relations between a state’s two senators. When visitors seeking such special consideration failed to obtain a card from one conscientious senator, they typically found the other to be most accommodating.

The problem of floor congestion persisted until all members finally got their own personal offices with the opening of the Russell Building nearly a century ago in March 1909.