When Wisconsin's crusading reformer Robert La Follette arrived in the Senate in 1906, he received a form letter from the Republican Committee on Committees inviting him to submit a list of the panels on which he wished to serve. He responded that he had only one preference, the Committee on Interstate Commerce. Aware of La Follette's recent success as Wisconsin's governor in regulating railroads, party leaders saw no reason to place this firebrand on that influential committee. Instead, they awarded him seats on several lesser panels.
In 1906, the Senate maintained 66 standing and select committees—eight more committees than members of the majority party. Although the minority party traditionally received a share of those chairmanships, a majority party freshman like La Follette also had reason to expect one. The large number of committees and the manner of assigning their chairmanships suggests that many of them existed solely to provide office space in those days before the Senate acquired its first permanent office building.
The Committee on Committees did find a chairmanship for La Follette. Years later, he looked back on his appointment to lead the Committee to Investigate the Condition of the Potomac River Front at Washington. "I had immediate visions of cleaning up the whole Potomac River front. Then I found that in all its history, the committee had never had a bill referred to it for consideration, and had never held a meeting." He continued, "My committee room was reached by going down into the sub-cellar of the Capitol, along a dark winding passage lighted by dim skylights that leaked badly, to the room carved out of the terrace on the west side of the Capitol."
Fourteen years later, in 1920, the Senate responded to a post-World War I mood to modernize all levels of governmental operations and decided to do something about its large number of obsolete and redundant committees. That year's Congressional Directory listed nearly 80 committees. Among them were the Committee on the Disposition of Useless Papers in the Executive Departments, and the Committee on Revolutionary War claims—still in business 137 years after the conclusion of that conflict.
On May 27, 1920, with all members assigned private quarters in the recently opened office building, the Senate acknowledged that governmental efficiency could extend even to the halls of Congress by quietly abolishing 42 obsolete committees.
McConachie, Lauros G. Congressional Committees: A Study of the Origins and Development of Our National and Local Legislative Methods. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1898.
Smith, Steven S., and Christopher J. Deering. Committees in Congress. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1990.