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Social Science History 24.2 (2000) 317-331

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Current Historiographic Trends in the Study of the Twentieth-Century Congress

Joel H. Silbey

Roundtable: The U.S. Congress in the Twentieth Century

Once upon a time, historians and political scientists expended a great deal of effort in tracing the complex development of the United States Congress in the twentieth century—a time, especially from the 1930s onward, during which Congress faced a remarkable expansion in government activity as a surge of new concerns, foreign and domestic, and, as a result, an unprecedented load of business, all but overwhelmed the institution. During this same time, Congress’s role within the American political system has been [End Page 317] transformed in the face of the rise of the imperial presidency, the Supreme Court’s insistence on changing rules of representation, and the consequent shift in the institution’s makeup and internal power structure. Finally, public perceptions of Congress, increasingly negative as they have become, have had some significant impact on the transformation of Congress within the American political system as well (Sundquist 1981; Harris 1993; Rieselbach 1994).

All of this has always attracted a great deal of attention from scholars. The way that Congress has evolved, reacted, changed, and set out on new courses has become the focus of interest, discussion, and understanding among historians working solely within their own discipline and across interdisciplinary lines as well, in company with political scientists and, occasionally, sociologists and psychologists. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, the golden age of congressional history, an extensive corpus of scholarship was produced, one that became large enough, and prominent enough among political historians, to be capped by the appearance of an impressive number of encyclopedias, compendia of articles, historiographic assessments, and bibliographies by the Office of the Senate Historian, among other efforts—all of them repositories of the accumulated wisdom among historians, and all attesting to the vigor and reach of this particular scholarly enterprise (Baker 1977; Silbey 1981, 1983, 1991, 1994; Thompson and Silbey 1984; Bacon et al. 1995).

This robust scholarship impressively touched on a vast array of matters concerning Congress’s past. It was firmly rooted in historians’ time-honored interests in the institution and was filled with rich description and analysis. It illuminated a great deal about individual senators and representatives in the many biographies produced, clearly evoked the partisan and other defining dimensions of legislative behavior, and suggested much about the makeup, nature, and demands of various factions and blocs at different times. Historians of Congress examined the fault lines in society and considered how Congress acted in response. They especially interested themselves in critical episodes—moments of sharp conflict and of intense tumult in the political world. Library shelves bulge with studies of Senator Joe McCarthy and his times, for one example.1 And so they should. The drama of such legislative confrontation, its course and consequences, is certainly important and deserves the kind of attention it has received.

Unfortunately, that kind of focus, as rich as it often was, also had a down side. It meant that there were many things about Congress’s history that were [End Page 318] not covered—those moments that were less dramatic and tumultuous, or, more precisely, many events and situations that, whatever their qualities, did not attract as much interest from scholars as the singular, noisy, and dramatic episodes did. As a consequence, historians developed much less ability to put the specific events that they studied so well into a more generalized context that might further illuminate the individual moment under consideration.

At the same time, the prevailing work in congressional history was incomplete in another way. Congress has its own practices and understandings, its own ways of setting agendas and reaching decisions. It has always contained complex internal mechanisms (from its leadership to its committee structure) that affect the way things turn out. But historians usually paid relatively little attention to internal institutional development, emerging norms and behavior, how business was conducted on and off the floor, how leadership...


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