Skip Content
U.S. Flag

Idea of the Senate | The Senate’s Need to Modernize

The Culver Commission, 1976
Image: Page 1 of toward a Modern Senate

Soon after he entered the Senate in 1975, Iowa Democrat John Culver concluded that the upper house was in danger of becoming dysfunctional. Describing the Senate as a “sick patient,” the former five-term House member said what was needed was not just a “quick physical examination,” but “a careful and probing study of the whole central nervous system of the Senate and its institutional well-being.” In response to Senator Culver’s widely shared concerns, the Senate authorized the first-ever review of its administrative and legislative operations by an outside panel. The 11 members of the Commission on the Operation of the Senate included university administrators, former state governors, and longtime Senate observers. In December 1976, the Commission—variously known as the “Culver Commission” after its principal sponsor, or the “Hughes Commission” for its chairman, the former Iowa senator and governor Harold Hughes—proposed several dozen reforms.

Members of Congress elected for the first time in 1974 were known, collectively, as the “Watergate babies.” In the wake of the scandals that forced President Richard Nixon’s resignation earlier that year, voters throughout the nation decided it was time to send new faces to Congress and to strengthen the national legislature against an increasingly powerful presidency. As the 94th Congress convened in 1975, this reform spirit became evident in the House of Representatives, where, contrary to usual practice, four powerful committee chairmen were stripped of their posts. On the Senate side, reformers engineered passage of a resolution that allowed each senator who did not chair a committee, or serve as ranking minority member, to hire one additional staff member as a personal representative on each committee on which he (there were no women senators in 1975) served. This ultimately weakened the traditional authority of committee chairmen and party leaders in favor of individual senators. In this climate of change, several new senators, including Democrats Dale Bumpers of Arkansas and John Culver of Iowa, spoke candidly to Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of the need for fundamental restructuring of Senate operations.

By 1975 support for institutional change had deep bipartisan roots. Among the more vocal Republicans was Senator Mark Hatfield, who had become a proud convert to the use of automated information management systems in his offices on Capitol Hill and in Oregon. With the active support of Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott, Mansfield agreed to a recommendation by Secretary of the Senate Francis R. Valeo that the Senate assemble a commission of outside experts on government structures and organization. With the adoption of the necessary authorizing resolution in July 1975, Valeo and Senator Hatfield’s chief of staff, Gerald Frank, joined the nine outside appointees as ex officio members.

The two Senate floor leaders made it clear that they wanted a thorough study of all aspects of Senate operations, except the politically sensitive matter of committee jurisdictions, which would be left to a separate panel composed of incumbent senators. Mansfield explained that he expected the commission “to tell us, with no holds barred, what we are doing badly or inadequately in operating the Senate and how we can do better; where we may need less and where we may need more.”

As the commission got down to work, two issues proved immediately troublesome. The first was embodied in a proposal to consolidate the Senate’s two-headed management structure by creating the post of Senate administrator to replace the parallel offices of secretary of the Senate and sergeant at arms. Secretary Valeo suggested a compromise plan under which he would serve for an additional year in the consolidated post before resigning in favor of Sergeant at Arms Nordy Hoffman. Hoffman’s reservations were among many entrenched considerations that ultimately stymied the plan. The second touchy issue was the proposal to televise Senate floor proceedings. While most members of the commission favored that objective, Senate leaders Mansfield and Scott did not. Comparing the House of Representatives, which provided full coverage, to the Supreme Court, which banned all cameras, the leaders concluded that television—inherently searching for drama and entertainment—would undermine the Senate’s dignity. With these issues removed from active consideration, the commission focused on staffing and Senate services.

Valeo championed the concept of a professionalized central administrative staff. For years, the offices of secretary and sergeant at arms had been obliged to hire staff, many of whose greatest assets were their political connections rather than professional competence. As Valeo later explained, “You have to have a staff which is first of all self-respecting and which can add something to the quality of the Senate’s production as a legislative body, and as an advisory and counseling body to the president in some areas.”

With only a year to conduct its review, the Commission relied heavily on Valeo; his Republican counterpart, Gerald Frank; staff director Vincent Rock, a respected analyst of institutional management; 20 staff members; the Library of Congress; and outside experts. Chairman Hughes acknowledged that “much of the Commission’s work has consisted of sifting through studies that we instructed the staff to prepare.”

In its December 1976 final report, the commission grouped its recommendations into eight categories. These included administration of Senate-wide services, space availability and utilization, time utilization, legislative oversight, improved technological applications, legislative support agencies, public communications, and compensation and standards. Here are the opening paragraphs of the report.

Toward a Modern Senate

The Senate is an extraordinary legislative body. Nothing quite like it exists anywhere in the world. Both as a counterbalance to the growing power of the Presidency and as a complement to the more specialized House of Representatives, the Senate represents a unique contribution of the United States to the art of self-government.

Change and continuity are equally characteristic of the Senate. While change is slow as a rule, coming quietly, it may also occur rapidly, sometimes dramatically. The image of the Senate changes with the long-term recasting of its protagonists and the gradual remolding of its procedures and structures. In the 19th century an era of great Senate statesmen yielded to less exalted times, bestrode by men more of privilege than of competence. In this century, a Senate once dominated—in Woodrow Wilson’s phrase—“by a little band of willful men” gave way to willing cooperation down the line with Franklin D. Roosevelt in the first hundred days of his New Deal.

Once deemed “the world’s most exclusive club,” the Senate today welcomes Members from many disparate walks of life and involves them in myriad tasks to an unprecedented degree. Only for the most recent third of Senate history have Members been directly elected by the people. Only in the lifetime of many incumbent Senators has the concept of a majority party leadership existed. Only in the last twenty years has the Senate become the principal recruiting ground of Presidents. No one born after the two party policy committees were first created [29 years earlier in 1947] is yet eligible, by virtue of age, to serve in the Senate. Developments in recent years, such as the Congressional Budget Act and the War Powers Act, reflect a significant capability in the Senate for continuing adaptation to internal needs and external threats.

The survival of our democracy depends on the ability of our institutions to change in order to cope effectively with an increasingly complicated environment. In retrospect, one can more fully comprehend some of the changes in society to which the Senate adapted in the past. While many traditional activities continue, an array of new economic and social forces swell the volume and complexity of demands on the Senate’s time and attention.

From one perspective, the role of a Senator has not changed greatly—to listen, to negotiate, to compromise, to decide on diverse issues, to make one’s views known. Each Senator is elected by the citizens of his or her respective state. Each has a responsibility to listen and respond to the needs of that state.

However, Congress, particularly the Senate, is increasingly occupied with formulating and overseeing the implementation of policies designed to insure the welfare and security of a nation growing steadily more interdependent and complex. More than ever, each American community’s well-being is linked with that of the nation and the world.

No longer simply a nation of neighborhoods, the United States is today a complex web of interpersonal relationships that are continental, even global in scope.

Yet, after almost 200 years, Senators still face, in principle, the same task assigned them by the founders of the Republic: forging policies for the nation, yet tempering them to state and local realities and diversities. In practice, the complex environment in which the Senate now operates and the sheer volume of demands on Senators may portend important qualitative changes in the role of the Senate. 1

The departure at the end of the 94th Congress in December 1976 of Senate leaders Mansfield and Scott, along with Secretary Valeo, removed the commission’s principal backers from Capitol Hill. A new leadership team chose to focus on the more pressing recommendations for committee reform made—simultaneously with the commission’s at the end of 1976—by the Temporary Select Committee to Study the Senate Committee System. Nonetheless, the Senate implemented several of the commission’s recommendations, including greater use of computers for committee scheduling and floor status information. It also voted a pay raise tied to a ban on honoraria and full public financial disclosure by all senators. Ten years would pass before the Senate agreed to televise its floor proceedings. Other Commission proposals fared less well. These included the creation of a central administrative officer, appointment of a non-senator to preside over routine sessions, and a reduction in the size and visibility of the Capitol Police force.

Today, the Culver/Hughes Commission retains its status as the only outside body ever invited to review the Senate’s internal operations. Its final report, Toward a Modern Senate, along with 11 detailed staff studies, offers rich insights into the Senate of the 1970s and reminds us of how significantly advances in computer technology have changed the institution’s operations over the past 30 years.

Further Reading:

Valeo, Francis R. Oral History Interviews, July 3, 1985 to March 11, 1986.

U.S. Congress. Senate. Toward a Modern Senate: Final Report of the Commission on the Operation of the Senate. 94th Congress, 2d sess. 1976. S. Doc. 94-278.

Commission on the Operation of the Senate Committee Prints:

  • Senate Communications with the Public, 1977
  • Policymaking Role of Leadership in the Senate, 1976
  • Congressional Support Agencies, 1976
  • Senators: Offices, Ethics, and Pressures, 1977
  • Budgeting in the United States Senate, 1977
  • Legislative Activity Sourcebook: United States Senate, 1976
  • Techniques and Procedures for Analysis and Evaluation, 1977
  • Senate Administration, 1976
  • Major U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy Issues [Congressional Research Service], 1977
  • Committees and Senate Procedures, 1977
  • Policy Analysis of Major Issues, 1977
  • A Select Annotated Bibliography on the Senate [Congressional Research Service], 1977

Return to Main Page

1. Toward a Modern Senate: Final Report of the Commission on the Operation of the Senate, 94th Congress, 2d sess. 1976, S. Doc. 94-278, 1-2.