Unique Circumstances: A Look at the House Journal on September 11, 2001

/tiles/non-collection/9/9-11-oh-911-journalpage.xml House Journal, 107th Cong., 1st sess. (11 September 2001): 1058.
Eve Butler-Gee pulled up to the United States Capitol under a cobalt-blue sky early on the morning of September 11, 2001. It was well before the workday began, but she hoped to complete a stack of paperwork before the legislative session started at 9 a.m. As a House journal clerk, she had to proofread the prior day’s House Journal and then report to the House floor to record a new day’s proceedings.

Since Congress first assembled in 1789, the House has kept a daily record of its procedural actions, pursuant to Article I, Section 5, of the U.S. Constitution. Journal clerks track when the House opens, adjourns, or recesses, when debate begins and ends, and who speaks on the floor. Unlike the Congressional Record, which provides word-for-word transcripts of House Floor proceedings, the Journal contains shorthand information of the House’s legislative business. For instance, the entry for Monday, September 10, 2001, a typical legislative day, recorded seven and a half hours of floor activity in 32 paragraphs.

When Bulter-Gee sat down on the rostrum to record the legislative day of September 11, her Journal entry ended up being deceptively spare, just five paragraphs long and covering a total of 53 minutes of House business. She made no mention of terrorism, airplanes, or evacuations. Based on what Butler-Gee recorded in the Journal, it would have seemed like a quiet day on Capitol Hill.

In the wake of the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon, tourists and congressional staff evacuated the U.S. Capitol./tiles/non-collection/9/9-11-oh_sept11_evac.xml Image used with permission by Douglas Graham, Roll Call newspaper In the wake of the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon, tourists and congressional staff evacuated the U.S. Capitol.
But September 11, 2001, was no ordinary day. As the worst terrorist attack in American history unfolded, with passenger jets slamming into lower Manhattan, the Pentagon, and rural Pennsylvania, Members and staff evacuated the Capitol complex as fear spread that another attack was imminent in the nation’s capital.

Butler-Gee’s Journal entry for September 11 may have been brief, but upon closer inspection, a number of clues emerge about how the day unfolded in the House. Paired with oral histories the Office of the Historian conducted in 2011 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the attacks, the Journal offers a window onto unique parliamentary actions that took place on 9/11.

Speaker Dennis Hastert called the House to order at 9 a.m. for morning-hour debate. By then, most House offices knew a plane had crashed into the North Tower of World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, but not much else. Only a short while later, a second commercial airliner crashed into the South Tower. At 9:20 a.m., Representative Timothy Johnson of Illinois, who served as Speaker pro-tempore that morning, recessed the House until 10:00 a.m. Aware that tragedy was unfolding in New York, Butler-Gee left the Journal in the chamber as she had done countless times before and went back to her office with the assumption that her workday would pick back up in about an hour.

But it didn’t pick back up in an hour. In fact, she wasn’t able to return to the chamber until the next day because at 9:45 a.m. on September 11, seven minutes after the third plane crashed into the Pentagon, Capitol Police began to evacuate the building. Although Butler-Gee wasn’t able to go back into the chamber that day, she had one thing on her mind: the Journal.

Eve Butler-Gee, Journal Clerk, Office of the Clerk Interview recorded June 20, 2011

Speaker Hastert told Representative Porter Goss of Florida to reconvene for a quick prayer and then immediately recess the House. According to the House Parliamentarian, Charles Johnson, however, there was no “explicit authority to reconvene” before 10 a.m.—meaning that technically the House could not yet come back into session. Under normal circumstances, House parliamentarians would have scoured their records to determine whether the House had ever taken such an action, since, as Johnson said, it was important to “have some semblance of authority for having reconvened the House.” But on September 11, evacuation was paramount. Representative Goss called the House to order early at 9:52 a.m.

September 11, 2001, Timeline of Events/tiles/non-collection/9/9-11-Timeline-pdf.xml Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives September 11, 2001, Timeline of Events
Representative Goss confirmed with House Chaplain Reverend Dan Coughlin that they still had to give the daily invocation, which typically precedes the opening of House proceedings. On September 11, Father Gerry Creedon was scheduled to be the guest chaplain. “I had a prayer about welcome, because a few weeks before, the president of Mexico was visiting our country, and talked about the immigration issues, and I thought that I would reflect the church’s concern about immigrants and having an attitude of human rights and welcome,” Father Creedon remembered in his oral history.

After learning of the attacks that morning, Father Creedon deemed his original message “totally inappropriate.” Instead, he quickly wrote a new prayer, using Reverend Coughlin’s shoulder as an impromptu desk. Beforehand Representative Goss had told Creedon, “I don’t care what your prayer is, as long as it’s brief, because we need to dismiss.” In the revised version, the priest spoke of leadership, consolation for the injured, and peace. Congressman Goss then recessed the House, “subject to the call of the Chair.” After a total of one minute on the floor, the officials evacuated.

When Butler-Gee returned to work the following day, she found the Journal exactly where she left it. The legislative day of September 11th remained open because the House never adjourned. The journal clerks added Representative Goss and Father Creedon’s floor activity retroactively. To record the decision to reconvene early in the Journal, House officials used the phrase “due to the circumstances of today.”

After the nation grieved, it focused anew on security and the many procedural changes that flowed from the 9/11 attacks. Capitol Hill also re-evaluated its emergency plans. House offices revised their evacuation procedures. Members and parliamentarians examined the House’s emergency recess authority, as well as quorum rules in case the House had to meet in an alternative location during a disaster. And Butler-Gee made an emergency plan for the Journal: “You can be sure that if the House is in session, the journal clerk will have that book in hand from now on.”

For his part, Chaplain Coughlin felt a shift in the meaning of his job after 9/11, as he indicates below.

Reverend Daniel Coughlin, Chaplain, U.S. House of Representatives Interview recorded May 27, 2011

The House Journal entry for September 11, 2001, may have brief, but when combined with oral histories of the people on the floor that morning, a more nuanced story of the day emerges. To learn more about the House and September 11th, visit the oral history exhibit, “Due to the Circumstances of Today”: The U.S. House of Representatives Remembers September 11, 2001.

Sources: “Charles Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [9 June, 2011]; “Eve Butler-Gee Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [20 June, 2011]; “Father Gerry Creedon Oral History,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [8 June, 2011]; House Journal, 107th Cong., 1st sess. (10-11 September 2001): 1051-1058.

Categories: Oral History, Institution