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"Battle of the Octogenarians"


Spring, 1962

Image of Carl Hayden

Perennial tensions between the Senate and House of Representatives exploded with unusual force late in 1961. The conflagration continued throughout 1962, blocking all major appropriations bills.

Fueling this explosion was deep-seated House resentment of Senate prerogatives. Until 1961, the Congressional Record always printed Senate proceedings ahead of House proceedings. Joint committees and conference committees were routinely chaired by senators and conducted for senators’ convenience on their side of Capitol Hill.

The year 1961 seemingly marked the start of a new era with a dynamic young president and fresh leadership in both houses of Congress. Late that year, House appropriators decided it was time to challenge outworn customs of senatorial preference. Their weapon was a conference report on legislative branch appropriations. Despite strong Senate opposition, the House amended that report to add funds for House mailings, while deleting an expansion of Senate office accounts. The House subcommittee chairman infuriated senators by charging that some used their office funds to hire prostitutes. The House adopted its amended conference report and defiantly adjourned for the year.

At the start of the 1962 session, this institutional confrontation involved fundamental questions—unresolved after 170 years of congressional operations. Does the Senate have the right under the Constitution to initiate appropriations bills, as distinguished from revenue-raising bills? May the Senate add to House-passed appropriations bills items that the House had either not considered or rejected? Where should conference committees meet and by whom should they be chaired?

The House adopted a resolution calling for alternating meeting places on both sides of the Capitol. The Senate countered by proposing that, from then on, it would initiate half of all appropriations bills. The resulting stalemate delayed a conference on an urgent supplemental bill for six months.

Journalists referring to the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees, 83-year-old Missouri Representative Clarence Cannon and 84-year-old Arizona Senator Carl Hayden, dubbed this the "Battle of the Octogenarians." Cannon, actually a close friend of Hayden, blocked funding for restoration of the historic old Senate chamber as a museum honoring the Senate’s "Golden Age," so that it could be available for conference meetings. "They want to wrap the room in cellophane," he growled. "They are not getting one cent."

By late 1962, Cold War pressures finally cooled tempers. The Senate agreed to rotate chairmen, hold conferences in the centrally located old chamber, and create a joint committee to study the problem. (The joint committee never met.)

For years to come, participants would not forget wounds suffered in the epic "Battle of the Octogenarians."