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An Era of Investigations: 1921-1940


This collection of brief essays describes important events and personalities in Senate history, and highlights recurring themes in the Senate's institutional development during this era of investigations, 1921 to 1940 (click on title for full story).

The Marble Room
March 4, 1921
Aptly named, the Marble Room is a long narrow space outside the Senate Chamber, between the Vice President's Office and the President's Room. With its ceiling of veined Italian marble, walls of dark Tennessee marble, ornate mirrors that reflect a magnificent chandelier, and even a secret portrait, the Marble Room is one of the Capitol's most unique spaces.


Senator "Condemned" for Excessive Campaign Expenditures
January 12, 1922
Automaker Henry Ford versus industrialist Truman Newberry. These two rich and powerful men, opponents in the 1918 senatorial election, set new records for campaign expenditures. Newberry narrowly defeated Ford, but it was a hollow victory as questions of corruption—fueled in part by the defeated Ford—resulted in a Senate investigation and Newberry's eventual resignation.


First Woman Senator
October 3, 1922
Appointed to fill a vacancy, 87-year-old Rebecca Felton of Georgia became the first female senator in 1922. She served just 24 hours after being sworn into office and gave only one speech in the Senate Chamber, but her brief tenure in the Senate tore down the barrier to women senators.


Majority Elects Minority Chairman
January 9, 1924
Following a bitter and exhausting battle within the ranks of Senate Republicans, a member of the minority Democratic Party won election as chair of the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee.


Radio Days
May 2, 1924
Today, we take for granted the gavel-to-gavel coverage of Senate proceedings on television, but such open access to Senate action has not always been available. In fact, long before the heated debate about television in the Senate, a pioneering senator tried to broadcast Senate proceedings over the radio.


First Supreme Court Nominee Appears before the Judiciary Committee
January 28, 1925
At first, President Coolidge's nomination of Harlan Fiske Stone to the U.S. Supreme Court seemed destined for quick and easy Senate approval. Caught up in the political and legal wake of the Teapot Dome Scandal, Stone endured a contentious confirmation process, and became the first Supreme Court nominee to appear before the Judiciary Committee, before finally gaining the Senate's consent.


The Midday Ride of Charles Dawes
March 11, 1925
Nebraska Senator George Norris lightly revised "Sheridan's Ride" into a comic description of a vice president's frantic journey from Washington's Willard Hotel to Capitol Hill. It could have been titled "The Midday Ride of Charles Dawes." At stake in the speeding-car epic was whether the United States Senate, for the first time in its history, would reject a president's nomination for attorney general.


"The American Senate" Published
June 1, 1926
By 1926 one of the Senate's most cherished traditions, the right to unlimited debate, seemed to be under constant attack. A cloture rule adopted in 1917 allowed two-thirds of the senators to stop debate on a bill. When cloture failed to stop a 1924 filibuster, Vice President Charles Dawes called for an even tougher cloture rule. Senate scholar Lindsay Rogers responded with an eloquent defense of unlimited debate and other Senate traditions in "The American Senate."


Senators Vote to Knock Out Walls
May 11, 1928
When Senator Royal Copeland, a former public health commissioner, entered the Senate in 1923, he was concerned about the quality of the air, particularly the air he breathed in the Senate Chamber during hot summer months. Copeland spearheaded a move to redesign the entire chamber in an effort to bring in fresh air and improve working conditions, a move cut short by the introduction of a new invention—air conditioning.


"Sons of the Wild Jackass"
November 7, 1929
Political factions have gained some very colorful labels through the years—often given to them by their opposition. In 1929 Republican senator George Moses of New Hampshire referred to a group of western progressives as the "Sons of the Wild Jackass."


Last Union Veteran
November 24, 1929
Just before Thanksgiving Day in 1929, the Senate mourned the loss of one of its best-known members. When he died on November 24, 1929, Wyoming's Francis E. Warren had served in the Senate longer than any person in history—37 years. Warren held two other distinctions. He was the last senator to have served on the Union side in the Civil War and the first to have hired a woman staff member.


The Man in the Green Hat
February 18, 1930
In the late 1970s, the Senate side of Capitol Hill featureda popular restaurant named The Man in the Green Hat. This lively watering hole memorialized the exploits of George Cassiday—Congress's primary bootlegger between the Prohibition years of 1920 and 1930.


Senate Rejects Judge John J. Parker for the Supreme Court
May 7, 1930
On the seventh of May, 1930, the Senate rejected a Supreme Court nominee. What makes this action worth noting today is that it was the Senate’s only rejection of a Supreme Court candidate in the 74-year span between 1894 and 1968.


The Senate Passes the Smoot-Hawley Tariff
June 13, 1930
On June 13, 1930, the Senate passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, among the most catastrophic acts in congressional history. As economists had predicted, the high tariff proved to be a disaster. Even before its enactment, U.S. trading partners began retaliating by raising their tariff rates, which froze international trade. The tariff did not sit well with the voters. In 1932 they turned the majority in both houses of Congress over to the Democrats, by large margins, and booted both Reed Smoot and Willis Hawley out of office.


Senate Considers Banning Dial Phones
June 25, 1930
The Senate has not always been quick to embrace new technology. Whereas younger members often like the newest innovations, older members often wish to hold on to more traditional practices. Such was the case with the dial telephone.


Cotton Tom's Last Blast
April 26, 1932
The Senate allowed "Cotton Tom" one last speech. At the conclusion of a 15-month investigation into voting fraud in James Thomas Heflin's final reelection campaign, the former senator from Alabama, a notorious segregationist, made his case.


Capitol Besieged
June 17, 1932
In the darkest days of the Great Depression, thousands of World War I veterans, along with their wives and children, marched on the U.S. Capitol to demand advance payment of a veterans bonus approved in 1924. These "bonus marchers" remained encamped in tents and huts around Washington until heavily armed troops, led by General Douglas MacArthur, forced them to disperse.


A Momentous Political Realignment
November 8, 1932
In 1932 a political tidal wave slammed into the Senate. On November 8 of that year, Senate Democrats scored one of the greatest electoral victories in their party's history.


Senate Sacks Sergeant at Arms
February 7, 1933
David Barry had enjoyed a long and distinguished career with the U.S. Senate, rising to the position of sergeant at arms—the Senate's chief law enforcement officer. With retirement just weeks away, the 73-year-old Barry made a mistake. He penned a newspaper article, to be printed after his retirement, critical of some members of the Senate. Consequently, Barry's retirement came sooner than expected.


Democratic Party Secretary
March 4, 1933
In the almost 80 years since the creation of the office of Democratic Party secretary in 1929, there have been 14 party secretaries. Among them, only two served more than 12 years. One was Marty Paone. The other was an equally interesting gentleman named Leslie Biffle of Piggott, Arkansas. When Biffle ended his 44-year congressional career in 1953, one Hill observer attributed Biffle's success to the fact that his "esteem for Senators is so intense [that] he is always forgetting himself and doing favors for Republican Senators too."


First Amplification System in the Senate Chamber
May 15, 1933
On May 15, 1933, while setting up for the impeachment trial for federal judge Harold Louderback, who had been charged with corruption, workers installed the first voice amplification system in the Senate Chamber. For a legislative body famous for its oratory and debates, much of the history of the Senate has been one of acoustics.


First Official Parliamentarian
July 1, 1935
On July 1, 1935, Charles Watkins was appointed to be the Senate's first official parliamentarian. He had arrived in the Senate in 1904 from Arkansas to work as a stenographer. He eventually transferred to the Senate floor as journal clerk, and in 1923, he replaced the ailing assistant secretary of the Senate as unofficial advisor on floor procedure to the presiding officer. From that time, he became the body's parliamentarian, in fact if not in title.


Hugo Black Lobby Investigation
July 11, 1935
When the Democrats took control of the Senate in 1933, at the beginning of the New Deal, Alabama senator Hugo Black drew on his skills as a prosecuting attorney to become nationally famous as a congressional investigator. Black's investigation resulted in the first congressional system of lobbyist registration. It also helped him win Franklin Roosevelt's first appointment to the Supreme Court.


Huey Long Praises the Official Reporters of Debates
August 21, 1935
Described as "the most colorful, as well as the most dangerous, man to engage in American politics," Louisiana's Huey Long served in the Senate from 1932 until his assassination on September 10, 1935. In the summer of 1935, three weeks before his death, Long spoke to a shorthand reporters' convention at Washington's Mayflower Hotel.


Mystery of the Senate Bathtubs
August 17, 1936
In 1936 the Capitol basement took on the atmosphere of an archaeological dig. On August 17, workers uncovered two artifacts better suited to the Senate of Ancient Rome than to its modern counterpart. Large, marble, dusty, these strange objects aroused much curiosity.


Republican Leader Front and Center
January 5, 1937
At the opening of the 75th Congress on January 5, 1937, the Senate consisted of 76 Democrats and 16 Republicans. On that first day, Republican Leader Charles McNary counted only one advantage. He had become the first Republican floor leader to occupy a front-row, center-aisle seat in the Senate Chamber.


Historical Records Saved
March 25, 1937
A young Senate clerk entered a basement storeroom in the U.S. Capitol on a spring day in 1927. What he found there was quite a surprise! Precious Senate records, many dating back to the era of Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun spilled onto the floor and underfoot, to be trampled on by a less careful clerk. Ten years later, the Senate transferred these and other valuable records to the new National Archives.


Death of a Majority Leaders
July 14, 1937
When Joseph T. Robinson died on July 14, 1937, the Senate lost one of its towering figures. Kind and gentle in private life, Robinson often displayed a fierce rage and dogged determination while performing his official duties as majority leader, particularly when championing the New Deal policies of Franklin Roosevelt.


Floor Leaders Receive Priority Recognition
August 13, 1937
The position of floor leader—majority leader and minority leader—has evolved gradually over the past century. Whereas committee chairmen provided leadership in the 19th century, the 20th century's focus on increased legislative floor activity shifted the focus towards developing party leader positions. Today, floor leaders enjoy power and privilege, particularly the right of first recognition by the presiding officer.


Southern Women Set the Stage
August 20, 1937
On August 20, 1937, Governor Bibb Graves appointed his wife, Dixie Graves, to the Senate. She served on the heels of Rebecca Felton of Georgia, the first woman to serve in the Senate; Hattie Caraway of Arkansas, the first woman elected to the Senate; and Rose Long of Louisiana, who won a special election in 1935 and served for a year. These four daughters of the South created opportunities, altered public attitudes, and helped to redefine the role of women in the Senate.


The Senate Radio Gallery Opens
July 24, 1939
The Senate has had a press gallery since 1841, so why did it need to authorize a separate gallery for radio correspondents in July 1939? Although radio correspondents had been reporting from the Capitol since 1923, newspaper correspondents barred them from the press gallery unless they also reported for a daily paper. Finally, on July 24, 1939, the Senate—eager to gain radio coverage—opened a radio gallery that operates entirely separately from the newspaper reporters.


"Mr. Smith" Comes to Washington
October 17, 1939
An enduring classic in the political film genre, Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington premiered in Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall on October 17, 1939. A huge success at the box office, Mr. Smith received mixed reviews on Capitol Hill.


"Lion of Idaho" Laid to Rest
January 22, 1940
On January 22, 1940, crowds lined the Capitol's corridors hoping for admission to the Senate Chamber galleries for the funeral service of Republican Senator William E. Borah of Idaho. Borah had served in the Senate since 1907 and was affectionately known as the "Lion of Idaho" for his fiercely independent views.