In the exuberant days following his November 1980 election victory, President-elect Ronald Reagan happily looked toward the Capitol and told reporters, "Get the President's Room ready!" Although his immediate predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had expressed similar intentions when he took office in 1977, he never acted on them. Four years earlier, Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee had unsuccessfully urged President Richard Nixon to move his working offices to the Capitol, leaving the White House as the president's ceremonial and residential quarters.
When architects designed the new Senate wing in the early 1850s, senators directed them to include a "President's Room," partly to symbolize the Senate's constitutional responsibility to provide the president with advice and consent on nominations and treaties. Through the mid-1930s, presidents customarily visited this ornate chamber at the end of their four-year terms to sign public laws. When the Constitution's twentieth amendment gave the president an additional seventeen days in office beyond the end of the congressional term, the need for last-minute signings--and the traditional use of this room--vanished.
Although President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act here in August 1965, the practice of ceremonial visits ceased until inauguration day, January 20, 1981. Living up to his earlier promise, Ronald Reagan made the President's Room his first stop after leaving the Capitol's inaugural platform. Accompanied by Vice President George Bush, Senate leaders Howard Baker and Robert C. Byrd, and a large media contingent, the new president signed nominations to cabinet posts and an order freezing federal employment. On several occasions in the ensuing months, President Reagan returned to this room to confer with congressional leaders on a budget compromise.
Following Reagan's example, Presidents
George Bush and Bill Clinton have chosen to begin their administrations with a visit here.