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Senate Reform Commission

July 29, 1975

Photo of John Culver

Soon after he entered the Senate early 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.”

On July 29, 1975, 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 long-time Senate observers.

Majority Leader Mike Mansfield explained that the panel would “look into conflicts in the programming of business, problems of office layouts and facilities, information resources and the internal management and supporting staff structures of the Senate.” It would also examine “workload, lobbying, pay and increments, office allowances, possible conflicts of interest and whatever other matters are pertinent to the effective operation of the Senate.”

With only a year to conduct its review, the commission relied heavily on a 20-member staff, the Library of Congress, and outside experts. Chairman Harold Hughes, a former Iowa Democratic senator, acknowledged, “Much of the Commission’s work has consisted of sifting through studies that we instructed the staff to prepare.”

In December 1976, the commission—known variously as the “Culver Commission” after its principal sponsor, or the “Hughes Commission” for its chairman—proposed several dozen reforms. The Senate subsequently adopted several, 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 each senator. Ten years would pass, however, before the Senate agreed to the recommendation for televising its floor proceedings. Other commission proposals fared less well. These included creation of a central administrator, 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 about 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.