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Overwork Makes the Senate Surly

August 19, 1950

Senator Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee

“The Senate is beginning to show signs of overwork.” That observation came from newspaper columnist Jack Anderson as the Senate continued working past its targeted adjournment date in 1950. “Sessions are growing longer,” he wrote, “and tempers shorter.”

Stories of petty bickering and outright feuds had become commonplace—including battles between same-state senators. New Hampshire’s Charles Tobey and Styles Bridges barely spoke to each other. Utah freshman Arthur Watkins never forgave Elbert Thomas for cutting him out of a Capitol ceremony dedicating a statue of Brigham Young. Tennessee senator Kenneth McKellar frequently disparaged Estes Kefauver. In fact, their relationship became so acrimonious that McKellar ordered his staff—on pain of dismissal—never to mention Kefauver’s name!

Most senatorial feuds crossed state lines, however, and some even crossed the Hill. Once, while Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia was away visiting his sick mother, Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey tried his best to abolish Byrd’s favorite committee—the Joint Committee on the Reduction of Nonessential Federal Expenditures. Humphrey argued that the committee itself was a nonessential expenditure. Byrd spent the rest of his career trying to get even with Humphrey. On one contentious day in 1950, Senator Walter George left the chamber in despair. “It’s the biggest wonder in the world,” he grumbled, “that we get anything done in this bedlam.”

The confrontation that inspired Jack Anderson’s article involved two of the Hill’s best known curmudgeons, Tennessee’s Kenneth McKellar and the irascible representative Clarence Cannon of Missouri. Chairmen of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, they had argued bitterly for years over federal spending. “A gavel-bashing, name-calling clash between 81-year-old…McKellar, and 71-year-old…Cannon, was broken up…just short of physical violence,” noted the Washington Post on August 19, 1950. While in conference, McKellar angrily commented on Cannon’s personality using language peppered with words such as blind, stupid, and pigheaded. Infuriated, Cannon sprang from his chair, rushed towards McKellar, and shouted, “I’ve taken all I’m going to.” In response, McKellar grabbed the gavel and tried to rap it on Cannon’s head. “In the nick of time,” the Post reported, a staff member “grabbed Cannon” and “two senators seized the gavel from McKellar.”

Why was the Senate so disagreeable in 1950? Well, a long debate over NATO had just ended, followed by the worrisome fall of China. Joseph McCarthy had launched his hunt for communists. The invasion of South Korea had catapulted the nation into war. Senators were debating Social Security amendments and arguing over the Internal Security Act. And, to make matters worse, it was an election year.

But perhaps there was one other factor. For much of 1949 and 1950, senators were forced to work in the Old Senate Chamber while the current chamber underwent renovation. Ninety-six senators were jammed into a space built for half that number. Only floor leaders got desks. Other senators squeezed into uncomfortable chairs and crowded into corners, at times forced to climb over each other just to find an empty seat. Under such circumstances, as Jack Anderson concluded, is it any wonder that “senators were discarding their courtly manners and snapping at each other”?