Putting the Congress of wigs and knee britches on record
Senate minority leader Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia is gradually inserting a history of the US Senate into the Congressional Record. It is a little project all his own.He began doing it in March a year ago and by last week had reached what he described as "my 39th speech." It is wonderfully restful to read.
The Congressional Record is stuffed with statistics and acrimony in fine print. After the first five or six pages it becomes rather a bore. The problems are intricate. In moments of discouragement it occurs to me that many of them won't be settled this year: perhaps not in the two-year term of the 97th Congress; perhaps, never.
In old days you couldn't tell whether a congressman was saying the things you found under his name, or whether he had inserted them later on. A crushing rejoinder might occur to him after he had left the floor, so he put it in anyway. Now the privilege is limited. The Record is a duller journal because of it. Now the reader is warned on the front page. There is a black fly-speck at the bottom with the explanation "* This 'bullet' symbol identifies statements or insertions which are not spoken by the Member on the floor." The House of Representatives also has its daily "Extensions of Remarks" section at the end of the day's proceedings which is a valuable fishpond for journalists; you never know what is floating around. Here is a term paper on "our Flag," for example, by a bright 7th grader from an elementary school in some congressman's district, or an article from the New York Post, inserted by Hon. John LeBoutillier of New York, on "Saudi Arabia Provides Massive Assistance to PLO Terrorists."
Let's get back to Senator Byrd. Under a unanimous consent agreement he has started again on "The United States Senate: First Congress" and suddenly we are away from the present and back in March 1789. . . . a newborn nation attempting to find itself with four million people and an area larger than any European state except Russia. Would somebody gobble us up?Senator Byrd writes:
"There was no example in history and no support in traditional political theory to encourage those who would attempt to govern such a nation by a republican form of government based on the consent of the governed."
Well, it was quite a feat, wasn't it? Mr. Byrd goes on to tell of the first Congress meeting in Federal Hall in New York City in wigs and knee britches. He doesn't say so but it came about because the Constitutional Convention which met in Philadelphia had done a funny thing. It did not start off to be a Constitutional Convention at all. Delegates gathered "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation." That seemed restricted enough; the governing word was "revising." But this was a runaway convention. The Articles of Confederation didn't work. So the convention delegates met in the summer of 1787 -- the youngest, Jonathan Dayton, 27, the eldest, Franklin, 81 -- and instead of "revising" they wrote a brand new radical instrument of government under which the first Congress met later in New York after the first election.
Mr. Byrd tells the senators of the 96th Congress about the senators of the First Congress. It is quietly dramatic: "Every step of the procedure that followed was a first," he says. "In the hushed chamber -- hushed as it is now, one can hear a pin drop -- the members watched Langdon [John Langdon of New Hampshire] open and count the electoral ballots." George Washington had won, of course --nine other men divided the remaining 26.
Senator Byrd goes on: there are five closely printed pages of it. His history lesson comes amidst disagreement and turbulent debate over the nation's modern economic crisis. It seems a bit incongruous at first. And yet at the end of the installment there is a relevance as Senator Byrd concludes:
"The First Federal Congress convened in a time of national crisis. . . Some of the problems it solved; some it merely postponed. Yet, despite its difficulties, the Congress survived, leaving to the future a sturdy foundation on which a great nation could build."
So again the Senate gets on with its work .