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Loud and Clear


January 25, 1971

Everett McKinley Dirksen by Richard Hood Harryman

Louisa Meigs entered the room at dusk with her husband, Supervising Engineer Montgomery Meigs, and began to sing. Her high notes soared to the upper levels of the corner galleries. Captain Meigs was quite satisfied with the acoustics, observing that “the voice fills without effort the whole space.” This was the new Hall of the House of Representatives in December 1857.

It’s not clear if Meigs conducted a similar test for the new Senate Chamber, but soon after the 66 senators occupied that room for the first time in January 1859, members began to complain about their difficulty in hearing floor proceedings. Only the impending Civil War derailed plans for an immediate reconstruction of that space.

With the postwar return of the southern states and the arrival of 22 members from states added to the Union by the end of the 19th century, the population of the Senate floor expanded to 90 members. The resulting increase in noise level caused a change in members’ seating patterns. The more senior senators used their rank to claim seats closer to the center aisle along the second and third rows. Whenever an important speech or discussion occurred, senators seated in outlying regions drifted to the center simply to learn what was going on. Hearing proved even more difficult in the galleries for members of the press and public.

In 1949 and 1950, a renovation project gutted the Chamber and replaced its glass ceiling and deeply recessed iron walls with the smoother plastered surfaces of today. This drastic redesign did little, however, to alleviate problems of hearing.

An event in 1963 finally compelled the Senate to explore modern methods of voice amplification. That year a Washington Post journalist misunderstood an exchange on the floor between two senators and incorrectly reported that one had called the other a liar.

Anticipating the current system, which began operation on January 25, 1971, Republican Leader Everett Dirksen justified the added expense in the interest of providing equal treatment for all senators. “As one grows older,” said the honey-throated Dirksen, “his vocal chords lose a little of their dynamite—a little of their resonance. The voice becomes thin, sometimes a little squeaky. Well, even a squeaky voice—or a thin, piping treble—is entitled to be heard on the floor, as well as a resounding bass.”

Mrs. Meigs surely would have agreed.