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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).

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.

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.

April 15, 1922

"How did Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall get so rich so quickly?"  When the Wall Street Journal exposed a secret deal to lease Navy oil reserves in Wyoming, everyone wanted to know the answer to that question, including members of the U.S. Senate.  The subsequent investigation uncovered one of the most infamous scandals in U.S. political history, sent a member of the president's cabinet to prison, and led to a landmark Supreme Court case.

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 and gave only one speech in the Senate Chamber, but her brief tenure in the Senate tore down the barrier to women senators.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

November 4, 1929

Senator Hiram Bingham enjoyed an adventurous and accomplished life as educator, explorer, aviator, governor and senator.  Despite such accomplishments, however, his Senate career was mired in controversy, due to a lobbying scandal that ended in a Senate censure.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

March 4, 1933

Throughout the Senate's history, incumbent senators have seldom resigned to accept cabinet posts. During the 20th century, only eight made that choice. It is even more unusual to have two senators move simultaneously to the cabinet.

May 15, 1933

TestOn 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.

September 4, 1934

On a hot Tuesday morning following Labor Day in 1934, several hundred people crowded into the Caucus Room of the Senate Office Building to witness the opening of an investigation that journalists were already calling “historic.” The so-called “Senate Munitions Committee” came into being because of widespread reports that manufacturers of armaments had unduly influenced the American decision to enter the war in 1917. As local conflicts reignited in Europe through the early 1930s, suggesting the possibility of a second world war, concern spread that these “merchants of death” would again drag the United States into a struggle that was none of its business. The time had come for a full congressional inquiry.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 nineteenth century, the twentieth 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.