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Senate Policy Committees Established

August 8, 1946

"There is no unity of command in Congress today," the reform-oriented Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress reported in 1946. "Responsibility for development and coordination of legislative policy is scattered among the chairmen of 81 [Senate and House] standing committees, who compete for jurisdiction and power," the committee asserted. "As a result, policy making is splintered and uncoordinated." To solve this problem, the joint committee proposed that each house of Congress create party policy committees.

House Speaker Sam Rayburn feared that the proposed committees would undermine his authority and scuttled the recommendation for his chamber. Consequently, the Senate modified the proposal to create policy committees for the Senate alone. On August 8, 1946, President Harry Truman signed a supplemental appropriations act providing for the creation of the Senate's Republican and Democratic Policy Committees.

Three months later, the November elections transferred control of the Senate to the Republican Party for the first time in 14 years. With an increasingly vulnerable Democrat in the White House, Senate Republican leaders saw their newly established policy committee as a useful vehicle for improving their party's 1948 presidential prospects and as a platform for a serious senatorial contender. Under the direction of that contender, Ohio senator Robert A. Taft, the nine-member committee functioned as its framers hoped it would, considering policy options, determining party consensus, and establishing the order of business on the Senate floor.

While the Republicans enjoyed their newfound majority status, Senate Democrats labored under the twin constraints of being in the minority and having a president of their party who set the agenda from the White House. Democrats initially took a less expansive view of the possibilities of their new policy committee. Continuing their party's practice of placing its leadership reins in the hands of a single senator, they chose floor leader and conference chairman Alben Barkley to chair the nine-member panel. In its early years, the Democratic Policy Committee developed slowly and continued to rely on executive branch agencies for guidance.

As party control of the Senate and the presidency shifted in the years ahead, the two policy committees adjusted their roles accordingly.