Pomp And Circumstance At Congress’ Opening Day

The 112th U-S Congress gets underway today. The opening day of Congress is known for its pomp and circumstance. For context to today's opening day ceremonies and a look at the make-up of this Congress, host Michel Martin speaks with the official historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, Matthew Wasniewski.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

We are bringing you the program today from Capitol Hill, where members of the 112th Congress begin their work. Even before the Congress gets down to business, it's already been defined in part by the drama of the 2010 midterm elections: there's the change in the leadership of the House, it goes from Democrat to Republican, the disappearance of Democratic moderates, the so-called Blue Dogs, and of course the arrival of a number of members backed by the tea party movement.

In a moment we'll hear from tea party favorite, incoming Florida congressman Allen West. He is one of two new African-American Republicans in the new Congress. It's been eight years since an African-American Republican has been seated in Congress.

But, first, we wanted to offer some historical context to the history being made today. So, earlier, we called upon the official historian of the United States House of Representatives, Matthew Wasniewski. And I talked to him about the pictures we sometimes see from other countries where fisticuffs and worse sometimes break out in legislative bodies, and I asked him if it was ever like that up here on Capitol Hill.

Dr. MATTHEW WASNIEWSKI (Historian, House of Representatives): We had a couple interesting opening days. One that comes to mind occurred in 1929 when the 71st Congress reconstituted itself. And in the House we had a member from Illinois, from Chicago, named Oscar De Priest who was the first African-American to serve in Congress in about three decades. And the House actually changed its practice for swearing in members.

Up until that time, state delegations were sworn in in alphabetical order. Well, the concern with De Priest was that Illinois was further down the alphabet, and several members from Illinois - one of them Ruth Hanna McCormick, who was an influential woman member from that period - went to Speaker Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, and went to Longworth's wife and said that her fear was that if De Priest came in in alphabetical order, that members from Southern delegations would jump in and dispute his seating.

And so, beginning with that Congress, the speaker would have the members stand up en masse in the chamber, and they would all be sworn in, all 435 at once.

MARTIN: Wow. Putting this into historical context, is that the biggest change we've seen?

Dr. WASNIEWSKI: No. The largest change that we have ever seen in the House occurred in the 1894 elections. And when the 54th Congress met in 1895, we had 176 true freshman members, members who had never served in the House before. And at that time, the size of the House was much smaller. We only had 357 representatives, not the current 435. So if you do the math, half the House were freshman members.

And it was a unique election because we'd had a couple back-to-back wave elections. The 1890 election was a wave election where Republicans lost 100-plus seats. And the Democrats came in for two terms. But the Democrats were in power when the Panic of 1893 struck. And it was actually the worst economic depression until the Great Depression. And so the Democrats were the recipients of a lot of voter anger in 1894 elections.

MARTIN: Well, sounds familiar. Sounds very familiar. Very interesting. So, to that point, you know, you were telling us earlier about the story of Oscar De Priest, the only black congressman at that point in 1929, the 71st Congress, what about today? Is this a similar watershed moment for African-Americans representation? One of the stories that got a lot of attention is the fact that there are two African-American Republicans to be seated now - one from South Carolina, one from Florida.

Dr. WASNIEWSKI: Right.

MARTIN: And that hasn't happened in quite a long time. Are there any other noteworthy features?

Dr. WASNIEWSKI: In terms of total numbers of African-Americans, the 112th will have 44. And that is a record by one. The 109th Congress we had 43 African-Americans. But, really, for the last 20 or so years, the number of African-Americans in Congress has plateaued. It's moved between 40 and 42, 43.

And if you really want to look at the long history of black representation in Congress, watershed moments would've been after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Between 1965 and 1975, you see the population of African-Americans in Congress triple from six to 18.

And then the 1992 elections, again, are important, in terms of increasing the numbers of African-Americans. We go from 27 or 28 African-Americans to about 40.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking to the historian of the United States House of Representatives, Matthew Wasniewski. We're talking about how this new Congress and this session's opening day matches up to others that have gone down in the record books.

What about the overall numbers of women in Congress? Is there news there?

Dr. WASNIEWSKI: We're going to have 75 women in the 112th Congress, which isn't a record.

MARTIN: Is not.

Dr. WASNIEWSKI: It's not. And that's just the House number. I'm not counting Senate in that. The largest number we've had in the House was 77. And what you see over many decades is a gradual uptick in the numbers. Many of the early women in Congress were widows who followed their late husbands into the House, occasionally into the Senate. And that begins to change in the '60s and '70s with the women's rights movement.

The other thing that changes in the 1980s is that you see the development of political action committees. Women had traditionally been underfunded as candidates. And in the '80s you see a lot of money being funneled into women's campaigns. In 1992, we have a very important election year for women. Their number in the House essentially doubles from about two dozen to around 50.

MARTIN: So, in 1992 that was a huge spike, even though the overall numbers are still not large relative to some of our peer economies. And also a number of countries in the developing world have far greater numbers of women in their legislative bodies than we do.

But, finally, there is a lot of talk about the polarization that we see as part of our political atmosphere now. I did want to ask whether, you know, from a standpoint of decorum and stability, whether we are in an era that is different from the past, or have we seen a more raucous environment than we have now?

Dr. WASNIEWSKI: Well, my view over the long stretch of 220 years of House history is that partisanship tends to be the norm. Actually in the late 18th century we had our very first floor fight on the House floor between a member from Vermont named Matthew Lyons(ph) and a member from Connecticut, Roger Griswold. They were fighting over policy towards France. They got into a shoving match on the floor. They were going after each other with canes and fire tongs.

MARTIN: So when you say a floor fight, you mean a floor fight.

Dr. WASNIEWSKI: Honest to goodness floor fight, yeah.

MARTIN: All right, so we're probably not going to see that in this Congress, there probably won't be any fireplace pokers flying. OK.

Dr. WASNIEWSKI: Well, there's no fireplaces in the chamber, so we're safe in that regard.

MARTIN: Matthew Wasniewski is the historian of the United States House of Representatives. He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much for joining us, and happy New Year to you.

Dr. MATTHEW WASNIEWSKI: Happy New Year to you too.

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