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Senate Stories | Traditions


Welcome to Senate Stories, our new Senate history blog. This blog features stories that reveal the depth and breadth of Senate history from the well-known and notorious to the unusual and whimsical. Presented to enlighten, amuse, and inform, Senate Stories explores the forces, events, and personalities that have shaped the modern Senate.

For more notable moments in Senate history, please visit our Historical Highlights collection.

"Congressional Weather Forecast: Long Hot Summer," by Jim Berryman, 1935 202308 11Give Us a (Summer) Break: Origins of the August Recess
August 11, 2023
The arrival of August means that the Senate is out of session and in the midst of its annual summer recess. Senators’ now-traditional time away from Washington, DC, during the “dog days” of summer can be traced back to the mid-20th century when workloads were growing, legislating was becoming a full-time, yearlong job, and the need to modernize Congress to meet the demands of the 20th century was becoming more evident. In the 1960s, Senator Gale McGee of Wyoming relentlessly worked to convince his colleagues that to modernize the Senate and meet those demands, they would have to take a summer break.

The arrival of August means that the Senate is out of session and in the midst of its annual summer recess. Senators’ now-traditional time away from Washington, DC, during the “dog days” of summer can be traced back to the mid-20th century when workloads were growing, legislating was becoming a full-time, yearlong job, and the need to modernize Congress to meet the demands of the 20th century was becoming more evident. In the 1960s, Senator Gale McGee of Wyoming relentlessly worked to convince his colleagues that to modernize the Senate and meet those demands, they would have to take a summer break. From 1789 until the 1930s, Congress convened for its first regular session in December and typically adjourned in spring or midsummer. After months away from Washington, members of Congress would return for a short second session in December that adjourned on March 3. Occasionally, extraordinary sessions or the demands of war kept Congress in session longer, but generally senators agreed with Vice President John Nance Garner, who reportedly proclaimed, “No good legislation ever comes out of Washington after June.”1 By the late 1950s, however, the schedule had changed and workloads had grown. Adoption of the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution in 1933 moved the start of each session of Congress to January. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 included a provision that “except in time of war or during a national emergency,” Congress was to adjourn by the last day in July, but this rarely happened in practice. The dramatic growth of the federal government since the Great Depression brought greater oversight responsibilities and increasingly complex appropriations work to lawmakers, all on top of their need to address national problems like civil rights and the challenge of governing the world’s largest economy. From 1949 to 1951, the earliest Congress adjourned was October 19. In 1956 Congress adjourned on July 27—marking the last time the Senate adjourned before the first of August.2 Senators began to feel the effects of these longer and busier legislative sessions. Short tempers and testy exchanges accompanied work in the hot Washington summers. In 1959 Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine warned of the Senate’s increasing workload. “The pressures under which Congress works every year at this time of year . . . create disorder,” she complained, as well as “confused thinking, harmful emotions, destructive tempers, unsound and unwise legislation, and ill health with the very specter of death hanging over Members of Congress.” (If that sounds dramatic, keep in mind that in the 1950s, senators died in office at a rate of about two per year.) Smith proposed an annual break from August to mid-November, but the Senate ignored her words of caution.3 In 1960, when the growing workload resulted in another long session that lasted into September, support for a summer recess grew. In 1961 freshman senator Gale McGee proposed an annual break to last from June to October, gaining the support of 32 co-sponsors. McGee argued that the long sessions prohibited many senators from returning to their home states, which had a deleterious effect on their family lives. “We are faced in the Senate with the fact that the work in the Senate is never finished,” he stated, adding it was time “to work out a habit of living that will enable us to rise to these challenges with a minimum disruption of normal family living.” During the 1950s, an influx of younger senators meant that more senators came to Washington with spouses and children in tow. In 1961 there were at least 141 school-age children of senators in and around the DC area. McGee was 46 years old with four children of his own, and almost half of his resolution’s co-sponsors were aged 50 and under.4 Among McGee’s most ardent supporters were many wives of senators and representatives. Bethine Church, wife of Idaho senator Frank Church and the chair of a committee created by the Democratic Congressional Wives Forum and the Republican Congressional Wives Club to study the issue, presented to the Senate Rules Committee a petition of support signed by more than 170 congressional spouses. In testimony to the committee, Church explained that Senate wives typically brought their children back to their home states after school let out for the summer. “It is important,” she stated, “to keep children close to the State which their father represents.” With the Senate in session during the summer, senators stayed in Washington while the family was absent. Once the session ended in the fall, senators traveled back home to meet with constituents (or, in election years, to campaign) just as their children returned to school in Washington. “The average Congressman with school-age children,” Church concluded, “is separated from his family almost half of the year.”5 A summer recess was also popular among senators from the West and Midwest for whom travel back home was costly and difficult to make in the midst of a session. Over two-thirds of McGee’s co-sponsors represented states away from the East Coast. Senator Jack Miller of Iowa stated, “I don’t know a better place in my State for me to obtain true grassroots thinking on problems of people of my State than at the county fairs,” and long sessions meant that he could not attend any of them.6 Unfortunately for McGee, a change to the congressional calendar required the cooperation of the House of Representatives. The Constitution states that neither the House nor the Senate can adjourn for longer than three days without the consent of the other. Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, a 79-year-old bachelor without children, vehemently opposed a scheduled summer recess, declaring, “It’s the greatest nonsense I ever heard.” In light of this opposition from Rayburn and other older, long-serving members, no action was taken on McGee’s resolution.7 In 1962 the Senate met from January to October with no recess. Just before adjournment that year, McGee renewed his call for a summer recess and got the attention of Senate leadership. In early 1963, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana expressed support for a summer recess and appointed an informal committee of Democratic senators, led by Senator Mike Monroney of Oklahoma, to suggest ways of speeding up Senate business and changes to the Senate calendar. In March Monroney’s group recommended that the Senate take a short break that session at the end of August. By May, however, Mansfield was already backtracking, saying that a recess would not be possible that year. An anonymous senator, likely McGee, speculated that Mansfield would not commit to an August break since that could be seen as a concession that the session would continue into the fall. That year, the Senate adjourned in December without having taken a break longer than a three-day weekend.8 By 1965 both the House and Senate were prepared to thoroughly examine their way of doing business, and McGee suddenly found himself with a more receptive audience. The Joint Committee on the Reorganization of Congress held more than a dozen hearings that year to explore ways to improve Congress’s efficiency and effectiveness. While McGee still highlighted the benefits of a recess for families, he began to emphasize that a summer break was essential to a broader modernization of the Senate. At a Joint Committee hearing in May, he asserted that “our annual race with the calendar and our perennial guessing game as to when we shall adjourn for the session are symbols of inefficiency and relics of the past.” He argued that mentally and physically tired senators rushed to adjourn at the end of long sessions, leading to good bills being tossed by the wayside while other bills passed without proper debate and scrutiny. McGee argued that a series of scheduled breaks, including a month off in August, would make it “easier, more orderly, and more predictable to pace ourselves during the arduous full legislative year.” The Joint Committee agreed. In its 1966 report, the committee recommended that the House and Senate adopt reforms with the goal of adjourning by July 31, but if the session had to be extended, neither house would meet during the month of August.9 Congress would not adopt the full array of the Joint Committee’s recommendations for a number of years, but in the meantime the Senate was ready to try out a summer recess. In 1968 the Senate took a month-long break in August to allow members to attend the party nominating conventions. If the Senate could break for the conventions in election years, some asked, why not in other years? The following year the Senate recessed from August 13 to September 3. Young reformers gleefully left town, while older senators grumbled. “There’s too much work piling up,” snarled one. “Now we’ll be here till Christmas!” Come September, reviews of the experimental recess were mixed. It certainly was “no vacation,” insisted George Aiken of Vermont, who discovered that his Senate work followed him home. But even critics acknowledged that the break provided useful opportunities for family gatherings and connection with constituents.10 Congress passed the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 in October of that year, which mandated that in odd-numbered years both the House and Senate adjourn for a summer recess in August. On August 6, 1971, the Senate began its first official summer recess. While the statute did not mandate a break in even-numbered years—senators chose to maintain flexibility during campaign seasons—the Senate took shorter breaks in August of election years and, beginning in the 1990s, began taking longer August breaks every year.11 On rare occasions, the Senate has chosen to shorten its break or even to forgo the August recess entirely. For example, in 1994 during a heated debate over healthcare legislation, Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine delayed the Senate’s recess until August 25. The Senate interrupted its summer recess in 2005 to pass an emergency relief bill in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Senate cancelled the August recess in 2018 to consider appropriations bills. Such cases remain the exception. By practice and by law, the Senate’s August recess has become a cherished tradition.12
1. Garner’s line was first attributed to him by Senator Willis Robertson in 1956. Congressional Record, 84th Cong., 2nd sess., July 12, 1956, 12419. 2. Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, Public Law 79–601, 79th Cong., 2nd sess., August 2, 1946, 60 Stat. 831. For a complete list of congressional session dates, see “Dates of Sessions of the Congress,” United States Senate, accessed July 14, 2003, 3. Congressional Record, 86th Cong., 1st sess., September 10, 1959, 18679, 18880. 4. S. Con. Res. 16, 87th Cong., 1st sess; Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, Adjournment of Congress: Hearing on S. Con. Res. 6 and S. Con. Res. 16, 87th Cong., 1st sess., August 2, 1961, 10. 5. Adjournment of Congress, 7, 9–13.. 6. Adjournment of Congress, 16. 7. “Rayburn Opposes Summer Recess for Congress,” Hartford Courant, May 10, 1961, 24A; “Yes Dear, Father Tried…but Mr. Rayburn Said No,” Boston Globe, August 3, 1961, 14. 8. “Senate Eyes New Set-Up for Meetings,” Baltimore Sun, January 10, 1963, 1; “Mansfield Proposes Easier Senate Pace, Six Recesses,” Wall Street Journal, January 11, 1963, 5; “Senate Unit Proposes Legislative Speed Up,” Washington Post, March 31, 1963, A2; “Mansfield Does Not Believe Summer Recess is Possible,” Washington Post, May 12, 1963, B2; “To Move Congress Out of its Ruts,” New York Times, April 7, 1963, SM39. 9. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, Subcommittee on Standing Rules of the Senate, Reorganization of Congress: Hearing on S. Con. Res. 2 and S. 1208, 89th Cong., 1st sess., February 24, 1965; Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, Organization of Congress: Hearings Pursuant to S. Con. Res. 2, Part 2, 89th Cong., 1st sess., May 20, 1965, 332–38; Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, Organization of Congress: Final Report of the Joint Committee on the Organization of the Congress, 89th Cong., 2nd sess., S. Rpt. 1414, July 28, 1966, 55–56. 10. “Recess for Congress,” Baltimore Sun, July 22, 1968, A8; Congressional Record, 91st Cong., 1st sess., August 13, 1969, 23660; “Vacation Breather Refreshes Capitol Hill—But Work Piles Up,” Christian Science Monitor, September 13, 1969, 7. For dates of recesses, see the “Sessions of Congress,” Congressional Directory, 117th Cong. 2nd sess., October 2022, 540–58. 11. Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, Public Law 91-510, 91st Cong., 2nd sess., October 26, 1970, 84 Stat. 1193; Congressional Record, 91st Cong., 2nd sess., October 5, 1970, 34945; “Senate Churns Out Bills, Recesses,” Boston Globe, August 7, 1971, 5; “Regular Recesses Help Congress Do More Work,” Los Angeles Times, October 25, 1975, 1.
Guest Senate Chaplain Wilmina Rowland, July 8, 1971 202303 8Enriching Senate Traditions: The First Women Guest Chaplains
March 8, 2023
The chaplain of the U.S. Senate opens daily sessions with a prayer and provides spiritual counseling and guidance to the Senate community. An elected officer of the Senate, the chaplain is nonpartisan, nonpolitical, and nonsectarian. The practice of inviting guest chaplains to deliver the Senate’s opening prayer dates to at least 1857, and for more than 100 years, guest chaplains had all been men. That changed in July 1971, when Reverend Dr. Wilmina M. Rowland of Philadelphia became the first woman to participate in this century-long tradition.

The chaplain of the U.S. Senate opens daily sessions with a prayer and provides spiritual counseling and guidance to the Senate community. An elected officer of the Senate, the chaplain is nonpartisan, nonpolitical, and nonsectarian. All Senate chaplains have been men of Christian denomination, although guest chaplains, some of whom have been women, have represented many of the world's major religious faiths. The practice of inviting guest chaplains to deliver the Senate’s opening prayer dates to at least 1857. That year, with many senators complaining that the position had become too politicized, the Senate chose not to elect a chaplain. Instead, senators invited guests from the Washington, D.C., area to serve as chaplain on a temporary basis. In 1859 the practice of electing a permanent chaplain resumed and has continued uninterrupted since that time, but the practice of inviting a guest chaplain to occasionally open a daily session also continued. While it is possible, and perhaps likely, that the Senate selected guest chaplains prior to 1857, surviving records from the period are insufficient to make that determination. By the mid-20th century, guest chaplains were frequently offering the Senate’s opening prayer. Clergy visiting the nation’s capital often communicated their desire to serve as a guest chaplain to their home state senators who would nominate them for the role. In the 1950s, this practice became so popular among senators that Chaplain Frederick Brown Harris, who served nearly 25 years as Senate chaplain, complained to Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas that guest chaplains had replaced him 17 times over the course of just a few weeks. Leader Johnson assured Harris that he would ask senators “to restrict the number of visiting preachers,” but the frequency of the guests persisted.1 During the 1960s, Harris suffered from a series of medical issues and was less engaged in his official duties. Consequently, Harris’s unplanned absences prompted new problems for the Senate majority leader, now Mike Mansfield of Montana, whose staff was forced to arrange for last-minute guest chaplains. Infrequently, they called on senators to offer the prayer. Further irritating the majority leader, Harris unwittingly hosted guest chaplains who used the “forum to present their own particular litanies” and political viewpoints, thereby violating the Office of the Chaplain’s tradition of nonpartisan, nonpolitical service.2 Such issues prompted Senate leaders to reevaluate policies related to the appointment of guest chaplains. When Reverend Harris passed away in early 1969, Majority Leader Mansfield and Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois created an informal, bipartisan committee on the “State of the Senate Chaplain.” Upon concluding their study, the leaders informed Harris’s successor, Chaplain Edward L. R. Elson, of a policy change: “It would be our judgement that under ordinary circumstances a regular practice of inviting two guest chaplains per month is now in order.” Also, “In instances when you are ill or unavoidably absent, we would expect you to ask a brother clergyman to fill in temporarily in your stead.” The new policy was intended to standardize and bring order to the guest chaplain practice.3 For more than 100 years, guest chaplains had been men, but that changed in July 1971, when Reverend Dr. Wilmina M. Rowland of Philadelphia became the first woman to participate in this century-long tradition. A 1942 graduate of the Union Theological Seminary, Rowland became a minister in 1957, after the Presbyterian Church allowed for the ordination of women. She was an author and associate minister in Cincinnati, Ohio, before joining the United Presbyterian Board of Christian Education in Philadelphia, where she directed its educational loans and scholarships program. When Chaplain Elson invited her to lead the Senate’s opening prayer, Rowland recognized the historical significance of his offer. “It’s an honor to pray with and for such an august body,” she explained to the press. “I’m not unmindful of the women’s lib[eration] angle to my performance. But the prayer, like any other I have offered, is still to God. I’ve kept that in mind while I’ve been working on it.”4 Generally, the opening of the Senate’s daily session is sparsely attended. Six senators were present in the Chamber on July 8, 1971, for this historic event, including the Senate’s only woman senator, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. Senate President pro tempore Allen Ellender of Louisiana called the Senate to order at noon, then introduced Dr. Rowland as “the very first lady ever to lead the Senate in prayer.” Rowland began:
O God, who daily bears the burden of our life, we pray for humility as well as forgiveness. As our nation plays its part in the life of the world, help us to know that all wisdom does not reside in us, and that other nations have the right to differ with us as to what is best for them.
Rowland later reflected on the event: “I’m pleased not for myself but for the fact the Senate has reached the point where they feel it is normal to invite a woman to do this.”5 But it wasn’t normal yet, and three years would pass before another woman delivered the Senate’s opening prayer. On July 17, 1974, Sister Joan Doyle, president of the Congregation of Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary headquartered in Dubuque, Iowa, became the second woman and the first Roman Catholic nun to offer the opening prayer in the Chamber. Her sponsor, Iowa senator Dick Clark, introduced her. At the conclusion of Doyle’s prayer, Minority Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania praised her “gentler touch” for preparing senators to enter “into the brutal conflicts of the day.” Senator Margaret Chase Smith had retired in 1973, and Senator Clark reflected on the lack of women senators in the Chamber that day. “I hope it won’t be three more years before another woman is here, not only for the opening prayer, but as a member of the Senate.” It took more than five years, in fact, for the next woman senator to take a seat in the Chamber. On January 25, 1978, Muriel Humphrey was appointed to fill the seat left vacant when her husband, Senator Hubert Humphrey, passed away.6 Since 1974 other women have followed in the footsteps of Reverend Rowland and Sister Doyle, although the number of female guest chaplains remains small. In 2008 the Reverend Dr. Patricia Bryant Harris made history as the first African American woman to give the Senate’s opening prayer. “It had a lot of meaning to me personally, to be a part of that history,” Reverend Harris said in an interview. “That is now history as part of the Congressional Record.”7 The chaplain has been an integral part of the Senate community since the election of the first chaplain, Samuel Provoost, on April 25, 1789. Today, chaplains and guest chaplains, now men and women, deliver the opening prayer each day that the Senate is in session. As Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana remarked in 2012, "It is good that we take a moment before each legislative day begins in the Senate to still ourselves and ask for God's grace and guidance on the work that we have been called to do."8
1. Congressional Record, 91st Cong., 2nd sess., August 20, 1970, 29611. 2. “Chaplain Absent, Senator Gives Prayer,” Hartford Courant, September 20, 1963, 25B; “Senator Takes Chaplain’s Place,” Washington Post, Times Herald, September 2, 1964; Memorandum from Richard Baker to Mike Davidson, September 19, 1985, in the files of the Senate Historical Office. 3. Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen to Dr. Edward L. R. Elson, Chaplain, April 29, 1969, in the files of the Senate Historical Office. 4. “Barrier to Fall: Woman Will Lead the Senate in Prayer,” Sunday Star (Washington, D.C.), July 4, 1971, A-10; “A Woman, Praying for the Senate,” Washington Post, July 9, 1971, B2. 5. Congressional Record, 92nd Cong., 1st sess., July 8, 1971, 23997; “Barrier to Fall: Woman Will Lead the Senate in Prayer.” 6. “Nun Gives Prayer in Senate,” Catholic Standard, July 25, 1974. 7. Nicole Gaudiano, “Del. Pastor makes history in U.S. Senate,” News Journal (Wilmington, DE), July 11, 2008, B1. 8. “At Sen. Landrieu’s Invitation, Louisiana Chaplain Offers Opening Prayer for U.S. Senate,” Targeted News Service, Feb. 28, 2012.
On January 4, 1939, in the U.S. Senate Chamber, Vice President John Nance Garner issues the oath of office to Senator Elmer Thomas of Oklahoma. 202012 30When a New Congress Begins
December 30, 2020
On January 3, 2021, the U.S. Senate will convene to open the 117th Congress. The Senate typically operates according to long-standing rules, traditions, and precedents, and the first day of a new Congress is no exception. On this day, the Senate follows a well-established routine—parts of which date back to the first Congress in 1789. The Constitution mandates that Congress convene once each year at noon on January 3, unless the preceding Congress designates a different day. In odd-numbered years, following congressional elections, a “new” Congress begins.

On January 3, 2021, the U.S. Senate will convene to open the 117th Congress. The Senate typically operates according to long-standing rules, traditions, and precedents, and the first day of a new Congress is no exception. The Constitution mandates that Congress convene once each year at noon on January 3, unless the preceding Congress designates a different day.1 In odd-numbered years, following congressional elections, a “new” Congress begins. From 1789 until 1934, a new Congress began on March 4. The Twentieth Amendment, adopted in 1933, changed the opening date to January. Regardless of the change in date, the first day of a new Congress for the Senate follows a well-established routine—parts of which date back to the first Congress in 1789. The day begins with the opening prayer and recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by the swearing-in of senators-elect (and sometimes appointed senators), the establishment of a quorum, notifications to the House of Representatives and the president, and often the election of a president pro tempore and other officers. Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate, as a continuing body, does not have to adopt or readopt its rules with each new Congress. Article 1, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution provides for staggered six-year terms for senators. The Senate is divided into three classes for election purposes, and every two years only one-third of the senators are elected or reelected, allowing two-thirds to continue serving without interruption. Before senators-elect can begin exercising their legislative responsibilities, each must present his or her certificate of election and then take the prescribed oath of office in an open session of the Senate. The certificate of election, issued by the governor from the incoming member’s state, confirms that the person was duly elected. Affixed with the state’s official seal, it is delivered to the secretary of the Senate for official recording. After the opening prayer and recitation of the pledge, the vice president of the United States, who serves as the president of the Senate, announces the receipt of certificates. Following established tradition, senators-elect are then escorted down the center aisle of the Senate Chamber to the presiding officer’s desk. Typically, the other senator from the member-elect’s state serves as an escort. Occasionally, the senator-elect chooses an alternative or additional escort, such as a former senator or a family member who also served in the Senate. The vice president, or, in the vice president’s absence the president pro tempore, administers the oath of office. Senators-elect take the oath to defend the Constitution by raising their right hand and agreeing to the words spoken by the presiding officer:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
Some hold in their left hand a personal Bible or other text of personal significance. The final act in the oath-taking ceremony occurs as the secretary of the Senate invites each newly sworn senator to sign his or her name on a dedicated page in the Senate Oath Book. Following the official oath-taking ceremony in the Senate Chamber, newly sworn senators join the vice president in the Old Senate Chamber, where they reenact the swearing-in ceremony. Prior to 1987, when the opening day of the Senate was first broadcast on live television, the official swearing-in ceremony was normally off-limits to cameras of any sort. The long-standing ban on photography in the Chamber led newly sworn members to devise an alternative way of capturing this moment for their families, constituents, and posterity. In earlier years, the vice president invited newly sworn senators and their families into his Capitol office for a reenactment for home-state photographers. In 1983 the reenactment ceremony moved to the restored Old Senate Chamber and has been held in that historic setting ever since. Once the senators-elect have been sworn in, the vice president directs the Senate clerk to call the roll to establish a quorum, which the Constitution requires in order for the Senate to conduct business. The majority leader then moves to adopt resolutions to notify the House and the president that the Senate has a quorum and is ready to proceed. The language of those resolutions has changed very little over the last 230 years. In 1791 the Second Congress convened in Philadelphia. After senators-elect presented their credentials and the vice president administered the oath of office, the Senate passed the following motion:
Ordered, That Messrs. Butler, Morris, and Dickinson, be a committee to wait on the President of the United States, and inform him that a quorum of the Senate is assembled agreeably to the Constitution, and ready to receive any communications he may be pleased to make to the Senate.2
On January 3, 2019, the Senate adopted this resolution:
Resolved, That a committee consisting of two Senators be appointed to join such committee as may be appointed by the House of Representatives to wait upon the President of the United States and inform him that a quorum of each House is assembled and that the Congress is ready to receive any communication he may be pleased to make.3
While the committee members appointed to “wait upon the President of the United States” did so in person in the 18th and 19th centuries, today the committee informs the president by telephone.4 The Senate next proceeds to other administrative business, which often includes the election of the president pro tempore, the secretary of the Senate, the sergeant at arms, and the chaplain. The Senate typically adopts a resolution early in the new Congress to set procedures for operating the Senate during the next two years. The resolution may include committee ratios, committee membership, and other agreements made between the majority and minority parties on the operation of the Senate. This is usually a routine matter approved by unanimous consent agreement, but there have been occasions when the Senate faced unique challenges, making organization difficult. With much of the “housekeeping” out of the way, the Senate is ready to take up legislative and executive business. With each new Congress, all pending legislation and nominations of the previous Congress expire, requiring many bills and resolutions to be reintroduced. Guests seated in the Senate galleries and those watching from home will note that members often stand behind their Senate desks to deliver their remarks. At the start of each Congress, the desks are reapportioned between the two sides of the Chamber based on the number of senators from the two political parties. For many years, the desks were assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. When a seat became available, the first senator to speak for it won the right to it. Today, at the beginning of each Congress, senators are given the option to change their seats, based on seniority. Three desks that are not assigned in this manner are the Daniel Webster Desk, the Jefferson Davis Desk, and the Henry Clay Desk. Senate resolutions govern the assignment of these desks. To learn more about the opening day of a new Congress or other Senate traditions, visit Frequently Asked Questions about a New Congress or About Senate Traditions & Symbols.
1. U.S. Const., amend. XX, § 2. 2. Senate Journal, 2nd Cong., 1st sess., October 24, 1791, 323. 3. “Informing the President of the United States That a Quorum of Each House Is Assembled,” Congressional Record, 116th Cong., 1st sess., January 3, 2019, S5 (daily edition). 4. Valerie Heitshusen, "The First Day of a New Congress: A Guide to Proceedings on the Senate Floor." Congressional Research Service, RS20722, updated December 22, 2020, 4.
Thaddeus Caraway (D-AR) as Santa Claus with Senate Pages, 1923 202012 14Christmas Gift Giving in the Senate
December 14, 2020
The Senate is an institution steeped in tradition. While some traditions prove to be long lasting, others come and go. Such is the case with one tradition of gift giving in the Senate around the Christmas holiday.

The Senate is an institution steeped in tradition. While some traditions prove to be long lasting, others come and go. Such is the case with one tradition of gift giving in the Senate around the Christmas holiday. Christmas was not always an eventful holiday in the Senate. Prior to the 1850s, senators took very little time off while the Senate was in session. The legislative session started in the first week of December and, in the era before widely available railroad service, it was too onerous to travel home for a short holiday break. The Senate was typically in session on December 24, adjourned for Christmas Day, then returned to business on December 26. Not until 1857 did senators resolve to take a recess for the Christmas and New Year holidays. In 1870 Congress passed legislation that made Christmas a holiday for federal employees in the District of Columbia. By the 1890s newspapers reported that attendance in both houses of Congress was “steadily diminishing” as the holiday approached, noting the Capitol was “practically deserted.”1 The absence of senators during a holiday recess meant there was time for those who stayed in town, especially staff, to celebrate the season. Soon, gift giving became part of the Senate’s holiday tradition. On Christmas Day 1862, for example, the Chamber’s messengers presented their supervisor Isaac Bassett—the assistant doorkeeper who began his 64-year Senate career as a page in 1831—with an engraved gold-topped cane to thank him for his service, in particular for “always showing the utmost courtesy to the messengers under his direction.”2 Another notable gift came in 1902, when Senate Sergeant at Arms Daniel M. Ransdell received a package from an unknown sender. Ransdell carefully removed the gold-foil wrapping from the package to find 14 ounces of anthracite coal. Before assuming that he was on the “naughty list,” know that the lump of coal was actually a welcome gift. Ransdell had been short on fuel for heating the Capitol that season.3 In the late 19th century, holiday celebrations—which had long been public displays of revelry—became more focused on children. In the Senate, gift-giving traditions centered on the youngsters employed as Senate pages. In 1887 California senator Leland Stanford, a multimillionaire, gave each page a five-dollar gold coin at Christmas. Isaac Bassett was charged with dispensing the gift and, though not a rotund man, his white hair and long beard and his “merry eye and cheerful voice” led the pages to dub him Santa Claus.4 Vice President Thomas R. Marshall began a tradition in 1913 of an annual Christmas dinner with the pages in the Senate dining room. Pages were treated to a sumptuous holiday spread and toasted for their hard work. Marshall then offered sage advice to the sated boys on how to succeed after they left the Senate’s employ. Calvin Coolidge continued the tradition when he became vice president in 1921.5 Some senators took advantage of the annual dinner to give the pages tokens of their appreciation. In 1915 Senator George Oliver of Pennsylvania and Senator James Martine of New Jersey gave each page a crisp new dollar bill. The following year Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware joined Oliver in giving cash gifts to the 16 pages. For a number of years Senator John Kendrick of Wyoming gave each page a new necktie. In an oral history interview conducted decades later, page Donald Detwiler recalled a Christmas dinner in 1917 at which Senator James D. Phelan of New York presented each page with a book.6 When the vice presidency was vacant in 1923—Coolidge had ascended to the presidency after the death of Warren G. Harding—a newspaper reporter quipped that “tiny Tim,” the smallest of the Senate pages, had lost his Santa Claus because no substitute had emerged to carry on the holiday tradition.7 The pages needn’t have worried. A few days after Christmas, Maud Younger, congressional chairwoman of the National Woman’s Party, learned that the pages might miss their celebration and invited them to her home for a feast. Arkansas senator Thaddeus Caraway donned a Santa Claus suit and arrived at Younger’s home with a bag of gifts. In 1925 Senator Robert Stanfield of Oregon took over the role of Santa and distributed gifts to the pages on the steps of the Capitol.8 When Vice President Charles Dawes revived the Christmas page dinner in 1925, the appreciative pages decided to turn the tables and offer their own gifts to the vice president. They delivered gifts to Dawes in a giant paper-mache pipe, a nod to his affinity for smoking a Lyon pipe (he became so identified with it that it became known after as the Dawes pipe). The gifts included a copy of the Senate rules “shot full of holes,” a clever reference to Dawes’s much-publicized harangue against Senate procedures that he had delivered from the presiding officer’s chair earlier that year. At the 1927 dinner, the pages presented Dawes with a new set of rules they had written to give the vice president complete control over Senate debate. Another gift was a model of a yellow taxicab, to mark the day that Dawes slept peacefully at the Willard Hotel when he was needed to cast a critical tie-breaking vote. Dawes had been awakened and hopped into a cab to rush back to the Chamber only to find he was too late to cast a vote. A few years later, the pages presented Vice President Charles Curtis with a tool to maintain order in the Chamber: a giant paper-mache gavel. The pages informed Curtis that should a senator become disorderly, the gavel was “guaranteed to mash ’em flat.” In return, Curtis gave each page a silver dollar.9 The vice president’s annual Senate page Christmas dinner and the associated gift giving continued a few more years, but the nascent tradition came to an end in the 1930s. Part of the reason for its demise was the adoption in 1933 of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which moved the start of congressional sessions from December to January. With the Senate recessing by fall in the years that followed, neither the vice president nor the pages were on duty at the Capitol for the holiday season. By the 1960s, when Senate sessions were growing longer and often extending into December, both the page program and the vice presidency had undergone changes. Rather than employing local youngsters for multiple years, the page program began accepting high school students from around the country to serve one semester at a time. By this time, the vice president also spent less time at the Capitol. Assuming more executive duties, the vice president began presiding only on ceremonial occasions or when needed to break a tie vote. Once a cherished Senate tradition, the annual gift exchanges disappeared and became lost to the past.
1. Congressional Globe, 35th Cong., 1st sess., December 23, 1857, 156; Jacob R. Straus, "Federal Holidays: Evolution and Current Practices," Congressional Research Service, R41990, updated July 1, 2021; “Holiday Pressure Is Growing,” Washington Post, December 19, 1892, 6; “Around the Capitol,” Baltimore Sun, December 25, 1894, 2. 2. Isaac Bassett Papers, Box 20, Folder G, p. 180, Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. [online version available through Archives Research Catalog (ARC Identifier 5423124, p. 22) at]. 3. “Coal His Christmas Gift,” New York Times, December 25, 1902, 3. 4. “Christmas Celebration at the Federal Capital,” Atlanta Constitution, December 23, 1900, 18; “Senate Pages Christmas Gifts,” Washington Post, December 23, 1887, 2. 5. “Marshall Is Pages’ Host,” Washington Post, December 24, 1915, 4; “Coolidge Invites Pages,” New York Times, December 23, 1921, 12. 6. “Senators Remember Pages and Officials,” Washington Times, December 25, 1915, 6, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, accessed December 1, 2020,; “Senate Pages Receive Gifts,” Washington Evening Star, December 23, 1916, 10, Chronicling America,; Washington Evening Star, January 4, 1925, Chronicling America,; “Senate Chief Pages Get Christmas Gifts,” Washington Herald, December 25, 1915, 9, Chronicling America:; "Donald J. Detwiler: Senate Page (1917–1918),” Oral History Interview, August 8, 1985, Senate Historical Office, Washington, D.C., available at 7. “Pages in Senate Have Lost Santa Clause thru Promotion,” Atlanta Constitution, December 23, 1923, 16. 8. “Senate Pages Get Feast After All,” Boston Daily Globe, December 29, 1923, 7. 9. “Curtis Gets a Huge Gavel,” New York Times, December 25, 1930; “'Study Senators' Is Advice to Pages,” Washington Evening Star, December 25, 1929, 4, Chronicling America, ; “Dawes Gives Christmas Party,” Washington Post, December 24, 1926, 4; “New Set of Rules Is Dawes’s Gift from Pages in Senate,” Hartford Courant, December 23, 1927, 10; “Senate Pages Turn the Tables on Dawes,” New York Times, December 24, 1926, 2.