Committee History

Throughout the history of the United States Senate, a number of committees have held the jurisdiction currently given the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation (the Committee). Indeed, many separate committees simultaneously shared the jurisdiction held by today's Committee.

Briefly stated, the progenitor committees are:
     Committee on Commerce and Manufactures (1816-1825)
     Committee on Commerce (1825-1946, 1961-1977)
     Committee on Manufactures (1825-1855, 1864-1946)
     Committee on Interstate Commerce (1885-1946)
     Committee on Interoceanic Canals (1899-1946)
     Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce (1946-1961)
     Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences (1958-1977)

Prior to the 14th Congress (1816), the Senate had only four standing committees. None dealt with legislative functions; rather, they dealt only with housekeeping or administrative functions (e.g., the engrossment and enrollment of bills, the audit and control of contingent Senate expenses, and the library).

For substantive matters that were found to require in-depth consideration, the Senate created temporary (select) committees -- often consisting of three members -- to consider a particular bill or issue. Generally, Members were elected to serve on select committees to consider a particular bill.

There was no uniformity with regard to the creation of select committees, and Members were asked to serve based on expertise. This meant that some Members were selected to serve on a variety of temporary committees, while others had far fewer responsibilities in this regard. As a result, there was no parity in workload among the Members, a fact that began to impede the progress of the Senate. During the 13th Congress (1815-1816), nearly 100 select committees were named.

During the second session of the 14th Congress, the Senate adopted a resolution creating a system of standing legislative committees. This first effort consisted of 11 five-Member committees and included the Committee on Commerce and Manufactures.1

Prior to 1826, committee membership was based on election and, based upon observations made by John Quincy Adams and implications in Jefferson's Manual of Parliamentary Practice, the Senator receiving the most votes for membership on a particular committee became that committee's chairman.2  Thus, while there were nearly twice as many Democratic-Republicans as there were Federalists during the 14th Congress, William Hunter, a Federalist from Rhode Island, was elected as the first Chairman of the Committee on Commerce and Manufactures.3

In those early days, the Committee on Commerce and Manufactures focused mainly on compiling statistical reports and conducting investigations requested by the full Senate on such matters as harbor improvements, the amount and type of articles in foreign trade, canal construction, and the regulation of shipping. These relatively noncontroversial pursuits were to come to an end by the mid-1820s. The first bill reported by the Committee was an act for the relief of Isaac Lawrence and other merchants in the City of New York who claimed to have paid excessive import duties.

Just after the War of 1812, there was increased demand that fledgling industries in this country be helped to grow. In response, Congress enacted a number of protective tariffs with little opposition. However, when an extension of the tariffs was proposed in 1824, the debate became heated. Strong opposition came from the southern states whose agricultural economies benefited from strong international trade and representatives from the Northeast whose maritime industries also profited from vigorous foreign trade.

The Committee on Commerce and Manufactures favorably reported the 1824 tariff bill with the Committee badly splitting along the interests its Members represented.4 The bill was debated by the full Senate for two weeks and passed the Senate by a vote of 25-21. Passage of the legislation caused a persistent rift within the Committee on Commerce and Manufactures -- the essence of which was perhaps best captured by Senator James Lloyd of Massachusetts when he said "It [is] wrong to refer two subjects, which often come in collision with each other, to the same committee."

Prevailing sentiment led Senator Mahlon Dickerson, Chairman of the Committee on Commerce and Manufactures, to offer a resolution in 1825 to divide his committee into two: one to represent commerce interests and the other to represent manufacturers. The resolution was approved 20 to 9. Senator Dickerson retained chairmanship of the new Committee on Manufactures, while the former committee's often minority of one, Senator Lloyd, became chairman of the new Committee on Commerce. These committees stood together for the next 120 years.

After the Civil War, America's railroads began a rapid expansion. During this period, the practices of the railroads were called into question and, in 1872, President Grant recommended a special Senate committee be formed to investigate. The committee was appointed and chaired by Senator William Windom of Minnesota. This panel proposed several reforms, including the construction and ownership of some railroads by the government, but no action was taken for more than a decade.

Then, in 1885, Senator Shelby Cullom of Illinois, "an indefatigable worker for railroad regulation," introduced a resolution calling for the creation of a temporary committee to consider the regulation of railroads. The Senate approved the resolution, and the Select Committee on Transportation by Railroad Between the Several States was created.

By December of that year, preceded by the Select Committee to Investigate Interstate Commerce, the Committee on Interstate Commerce was established and made permanent. Senator Cullom became its first chairman, where he served for the next 28 years (13 as chairman) until his retirement from the Senate in 1913. The Committee on Interstate Commerce remained in existence for the next 50 years. In 1886, the Supreme Court in the famous Wabash Railroad case declared State regulation of railroad rates (and interstate commerce in general) unconstitutional. As a result, such regulation fell to the federal government, and the Committee on Interstate Commerce reported the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 establishing federal control over railroad rates and services.

Just as the Committee on Interstate Commerce was created to deal with the issues connected with the rush to expand the transportation potential of the railroads in the mid and latter portion of the 19th Century, by the end of the century the Senate discovered it was necessary to address issues surrounding efforts to make the maritime industry ever more efficient. Many agreed the strategic importance of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama was made apparent by the historic voyage made around Cape Horn by the U.S.S. Oregon during the Spanish-American War.

As a result, in 1899, the Senate voted to create the Committee on Interoceanic Canals. Senator (and former Confederate brigadier general) John T. Morgan of Alabama became the first chairman of the committee and presided over the committee's 1902 Spooner Act report, which authorized the construction of the Panama Canal. While the Committee on Interoceanic Canals continued to exist until very early 1947, there is little evidence that it produced much additional work.

As mentioned previously, the Senate had no standing committees until 1816 when it created 11. By the turn of the century, there were 42 standing committees of the Senate and, by 1913, it reached the record high of 73.5 Committee assignments meant enhanced prestige, more staff (until the 1880s, only committee chairmen were permitted to employ clerical staff), extra office space, and a larger stationery allowance. This made it extraordinarily difficult to eliminate any standing committee once created. Indeed, Senate leaders were thwarted in their attempts to do away with the Committee on Revolutionary Claims as late as 1884 because a number of Senators argued "the committee has always been assigned to the minority of the Senate. The committee room is a large room, and is a very convenient place for Senators of the minority to assemble."

In 1921, the Senate was able to reorganize and reduce the number of standing committees from 73 to 33. The Committee on Commerce, the Committee on Manufactures, the Committee on Interstate Commerce, and the Committee on Interoceanic Canals all survived the process. Each would continue to exist for another quarter century.

In the mid-1940s, the Senate reorganized again. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 was written to streamline Congress and improve efficiency. As signed into law, the Act reduced the number of standing Senate committees from 33 to 15 and eliminated a number of special committees with jurisdictions overlapping the newly created standing committees. The Committee on Commerce and the Committee on Manufactures -- committees that once had split from a single committee thought unable to adequately balance the needs of those trading in commerce with those of manufacturers -- together with the Committee on Interstate Commerce and the Committee on Interoceanic Canals ceased to exist. Almost all of their jurisdiction was turned over to a single, new, Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce.

In 1958, the Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences was established.

In 1961, the name of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce was shortened to the Committee on Commerce. Many simply called it the "Commerce Committee," a shorthand reference to the Committee that continues to this day.

By the mid-1970s, many were once again calling for a review of the structure and operations of the Senate. In 1976, the Select Committee to Study the Senate Committee System was created and made recommendations in the form of S. Res. 4, the Committee System Reorganization Amendments of 1977. S. Res. 4, as passed by the Senate, changed the name of the Committee on Commerce to the present-day Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences was terminated in 1977; its functions were transferred to the modern-day "Commerce Committee."

This name change was made to reflect the expanded jurisdiction given the Committee under the reorganization. Specifically, the Committee was given responsibility for the regulation of consumer products and services for the first time. The Committee also was charged with the nations science, engineering, and technology policy. Related to its new science responsibilities was jurisdiction over non-military aeronautical and space science policy.

Prior to this reorganization, the Committee had responsibility for oceans policy, commercial shipping, navigation, waterways, and canals. The 1977 amendments expanded that jurisdiction to include the transportation and commercial aspects of the outer continental shelf lands policy. The Committee's extensive responsibilities over communications policy remained unchanged by the 1977 changes.

In addition to its new responsibilities, several of the Committee's existing jurisdictions were expanded. The Committee's transportation jurisdiction was expanded to include all interstate common carriers -- including all civil aviation and interstate pipelines. In a move related to the Committee's new science responsibilities, it also was given jurisdiction over transportation issues surrounding non-military aeronautical and space policy.

Today, the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and its Standing Subcommittees derive their jurisdiction from the Standing Rules of the Senate.

Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state currently serves as the first Woman Chair of the Committee.


Footnotes

1 The other committeess created by the 1816 rule change were the Committees on Foreign Relations; Finance; Military Affairs; Naval Affairs; Judiciary; Public Lands; Post Office and Post Roads; Militia; Claims; and Pensions.

2 Prior to 1826, Senate Journal and Congressional Record unclear as to which Member served as Chairman. For purposes of this history, the first named Member of the committee is listed as Chairman from 1816-1826. This is consistent with the practice of the time as explained in The Senate of the United States by George H. Haynes (as reprinted in the "History, Membership, and Jurisdiction of the Senate Committee on Commerce From 1816-1966" (Senate Doc. No. 89-100; 89th Congress, 2d Session):
For the first 37 years of the Senate's history its rules made no provision as to the choice of committee chairmen. The implication of Jefferson's Manual is that the person first named served as chairman, but only as a matter of courtesy--"every committee having a right to elect their own chairman." John Quincy Adams, in 1808, declared it to be the Senate's prevailing practice that "the member having the greatest number of votes is first named, and as such is chairman." In 1826, on motion of Senator Chambers, the Senate determined that the Senate should proceed by ballot to choose severally the chairman of each committee, a majority of the whole number of votes given being necessary for a choice; the other members were then to be elected on one ballot by plurality vote.

3 The other members of this, the first of the Committee's progenitors, were: Senators Jeremiah Mason (New Hampshire), Nathan Sanford (New York), Jonathan Roberts (Pennsylvania), and George Washington Campbell (Tennessee), all members of the majority.

4 Chairman Mahlon Dickerson (New Jersey) and Senator James De Wolfe (Rhode Island) both voted for the tariff bill in support of their states' manufacturing based constituency. Senator Benjamin Rubggles (Ohio) representing a large wool producing state (at the time) and William Findlay (Pennsylvania) supporting iron interests, joined in supporting the bill. Senator James Lloyd (Massachusetts), champion of maritime interests, opposed the bill.

5 Among the more interesting of the 73 standing committees that existed in the Senate in 1913 were the committees on: Five Civilized Tribes of Indians; Transportation and Sale of Meat Products; Woman Suffrage; and Investigation of Trespassers Upon Indian Lands.