Why should the Senate open its proceedings to non-senators? Members of the first Senate in 1789 had a ready answer to that question: “There is no reason.” If the House of Representatives, which styled itself the “peoples’ house,” chose to admit the public, good luck to them. Neither the Continental Congress, nor the Constitutional Convention had allowed visitors—or as the British parliament calls them even today, “strangers.”
Soon, however, the openness of the House began to reflect badly on the Senate. In March 1792, Senator James Monroe offered a public-access resolution, which his colleagues soundly defeated by a two-to-one margin. Several weeks later, on April 18, the Senate considered a more limited access plan to allow into its proceedings a special group of the people’s representatives: House members. Again, there came a resounding answer: two-thirds thought that was a very poor idea.
Two years later, in danger of becoming the forgotten house of Congress, members finally agreed to open the doors for legislative business, as soon as a gallery could be constructed. House members were welcome to use the gallery when it opened in 1795.
After Congress moved from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800, the Senate operated for several decades without a specific rule for floor access. Members conducted whomever they wished onto the floor. The crowding got so difficult, however, particularly during the great debates on sectionalism in the early 1830s, that the Senate in 1835, for the first time, adopted a rule identifying classes of individuals permitted floor privileges. These classes, reflecting the Senate’s desire not to offend, included potentially thousands of individuals: present and past government officials, ambassadors, individuals who had received the thanks of Congress for gallantry, and legislators of friendly foreign nations. Soon, responding to inevitable complaints of omission against even this lenient standard, the Senate added more titles.
As members from newly admitted states added to the chamber’s congestion, the Senate spent hours debating its access rule. One plan allowed only senators to enter through side doors. House members complained and were quickly extended this privilege. Others were required to sign their name and position in a register kept at the chamber’s entrance.
With its move to the current chamber in 1859, the Senate adopted a simple rule: only senators, Senate officers, and House members would be admitted—period! Within weeks, however, the access headache returned, as the list again began its inevitable expansion.