Before their transfer to the National Archives, most records of Congress had been housed in the offices, attics, basements, and storage rooms of the Capitol. They had suffered from neglect, vermin, and pilferage, abuses common to most collections of older Government records housed in unsuitable and unsupervised storage areas. In addition, when the British invaded Washington, DC, House records were subjected to a hasty evacuation that proved to be disastrous. The Senate successfully removed its records from the city, but the House was not so fortunate. Having waited too long to secure wagons, the Clerk of the House found that, "every wagon, and almost every cart, belonging to the city, had been previously impressed into the service of the United States, for the transportation of the baggage of the army." While some records were saved, others such as the secret journal of the Congress and a great many petitions were lost when the British burned the Capitol. The incident caused the Clerk of the House, Patrick Magruder, to resign.
While the fire destroyed some records of the House, the rules of Congress affected the completeness of Senate records. Before 1946, Senate committees were instructed to return to the Secretary of the Senate at the end of a Congress all papers "referred" to the committee, but the directive (Senate Rule XXXII) said nothing about materials received directly by the committee or created by the committee. Also, it was not clear whether the records of special and select committees were under the Secretary's jurisdiction. Consequently, some records probably were not preserved. The Clerk of the House was more fortunate in this regard. In 1880, House rules required that all committee records be delivered to the Clerk within 3 days after the final adjournment of each Congress and that permission of the committee that originated a record was necessary for the withdrawal of records. This greatly increased the Clerk's control over these materials.
As the 20th century approached, both Houses of Congress experienced overcrowding. In 1900, the House temporarily solved this problem by transferring some 5,000 of its oldest bound volumes to the Library of Congress and continued to transfer some of its records to the Library for the next 40 years. Despite their new location, these records were still, as the statute stated, "part of the files of the House of Representatives, subject to its orders and rules."
In 1934, the National Archives was established as the depository for the historic records of the Federal Government, i.e., all permanently valuable records of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. A preliminary survey by the Archives staff in late 1936, revealed that the Secretary of the Senate had been overwhelmed by his responsibility to protect his institution's records. The Archives report indicated that some materials were on the floor in damp rooms where they were subject to "extensive growths of mold and fungi. . . . Numerous signs of insect damage indicate an extensive infestation by both slow and fast moving insects. The presence of rodents was also noted in Room 5." The National Archives recommendation was to transfer all but the most recent of the Senate's records to the new Archives building. In April 1937, the Senate sent approximately 4,000 cubic feet of records to the National Archives.
Securing the transfer of the records of the House, however, was not so easy. In late 1936, the Archivist of the United States received permission from the Clerk to examine House records. From January through March 1937, T. R. Schellenberg of the National Archives surveyed the House's historic records still stored in the Capitol building. He reported many of the same conditions that existed for Senate records, noting that some were "exposed to extremes of heat and cold, to an accumulation of dust, to neglect, and accessible for pilfering." In another instance, he noted the following: "Room contains a slop sink, and has a leaking joint causing partial destruction of records of the 47th Congress. Room dirty and ill-kept. Records infested with vermin." To buttress its case, the Archives sent a photographer to record these conditions. The photographs and the examiner's report were sent to the Clerk. A draft resolution authorizing the transfer, identical to the Senate resolution, was prepared by the Archives and delivered to the chairman of the House Committee on the Library. The Committee obligingly reported out a resolution and report to the Archives liking. For a variety of reasons, however, the House chose not to transfer its records to the National Archives until nearly a decade later.
Although the transfer of House records awaited the passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, records storage continued to be a problem for the House. In late 1944, the Washington Post reported that the House was in a quandary as to what to do about the mountains of records created by a number of special committees, such as the House Un-American Activities Committee. Representative Everett Dirksen of Illinois suggested that Congress should establish "an archives bureau for the preservation of the voluminous records of the special committees." Archivist Solon J. Buck suggested meeting with Dirksen to offer assistance if Congress really wanted a separate archives. "On the other hand," he continued, "the interested members of Congress should know," that the National Archives could be used "effectively for their purposes, with confidential records under seal and to be consulted only under authorization of specified officers of Congress." Shortly thereafter, Thad Page, the National Archives legislative liaison, contacted Dirksen and others offering the Archives help in setting up a separate congressional facility. Page noted, "We feel that since Congress has already provided facilities here that would insure their preservation it would be the part of economy to use them." He enclosed copies of the 1937 resolution and report from the House Committee on the Library favoring the transfer of House records to the National Archives. A day later, Dirksen announced that he would introduce a bill to effect the transfer.
In December, 1944, Congress formed a joint committee to study the organization of Congress. This gave the National Archives and the historical community a chance to present its case on a whole range of congressional records problems. On the Senate side the inadequacies of Senate Rule XXXII were, of course, paramount. A change in the rule giving the Secretary authority over all committee records, not just those that were referred, was recommended. Also recommended was the transfer of the records of the House to the National Archives. The results of the joint committee's deliberations was the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946.
The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 became a milestone for the archives of Congress. First, it required committees to maintain a record of their proceedings, providing for the first time in history a continuous record of committee votes and hearings. In addition, the act provided that a legislator's committee staff and personal staff had to remain separate, thereby reducing the possibility that personal papers and committee records would become intermixed. Finally, the Secretary was given greater authority over all Senate committee records and the House was required to transfer all of its records for the first 76 Congresses (through 1941) to the National Archives. The section of the statute governing the records of Congress directed that:
The Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives, acting jointly, shall obtain at the close of each Congress all the non-current records of the Congress and of each congressional committee and transfer them to the National Archives for preservation, subject to the orders of the Senate or the House of Representatives, respectively.
The passage of the Federal Records Act of 1950 completed the legal structure that currently governs the records of Congress. This act empowered the Administrator of General Services (an authority since transferred to the Archivist of the United States) to accept for deposit with the National Archives "the records of any Federal agency or of the Congress of the United States that are determined by the Archivist to have sufficient historical or other value to warrant their continued preservation by the United States Government."
Below the record group level, the records of the Senate, 1789-1946, and the records of the House, 1789-1962, are arranged primarily by Congress, thereunder by activity and type of records or series, and thereunder by committee. This basic arrangement is reflected in the classification scheme developed by the National Archives in the late 1930's. Under this scheme each series of records was given an alpha-numeric file number that signifies where the records stand in relation to the entire body of congressional records. All of the file numbers assigned to the general records of the House through 1946 are listed in the National Archives publication Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the United States House of Representatives, 1789-1946 (2 vols.). Senate file numbers are listed in a loose leaf inventory available from the Center for Legislative Archives. These finding aids are invaluable for anyone doing extensive research in congressional records.
Because many of the documents cited in the chapters of this guide are identified by file numbers, the following analysis of the various elements comprising a file number, such as SEN 34A-E11, is provided. In general, the letters and numbers to the left of the hyphen identify the Congress and congressional activity involved, while the ones to the right of the hyphen indicate the series and file segment within the records of an individual Congress in which a file is located.
The first element of the file number is either SEN or HR, which indicates that the record is either a Senate or a House record. The next number identifies the Congress in which the record was either created or referred. Beginning in 1789 with the First Congress, a new Congress has convened every 2 years. To determine the Congress in session for a given time period, consult Appendix F.
The next letter in the file number signifies the category of congressional activity with which the record was involved. These letters are common to all Congresses and do not change. For Senate records, the categories are: "A" - records of legislative proceedings, "B" - records of executive proceedings, "C" - records of impeachments, and "D" - records of the Secretary of the Senate. The most voluminous category of records relates to legislative proceedings. Legislative proceedings include the consideration of bills and resolutions, the referral of petitions and memorials, the recording of this activity in minute books and journals, the receipt of messages from the executive branch, and election records. The executive proceedings relate to the consideration of treaties and nominations. Records of impeachments document Congress' constitutional prerogatives to impeach and convict certain officials in the executive and judicial branches. The Secretary of the Senate has numerous responsibilities, such as maintaining the Journal, examining legislation for accuracy, and in the 20th century, processing filings by lobbyists and candidates for Congress.