For more than a century, seat assignment in the U.S. House of Representatives was an important element in congressional life. Until the early 1900s, when benches replaced them, a desk was a Member’s office. He stowed his hat beneath his chair, wrote and stored papers in the writing desk, and occasionally propped his feet up to listen to debate. During a Representative’s temporary, boarding-house existence in the capital city, a desk was the most permanent home he had. How Members secured a desk evolved from free-for-all to highly orchestrated political theater.
There is little documentation of Members choosing desks according to any rhyme or reason. In fact, one 1797 visitor to the House noted that “they do not sit according to states but pell-mell.” An early sketch of the seating arrangement, however, shows that the Members with the longest service had the best seats. In addition, an investigation into a fracas between two Members in 1798 yielded testimony that includes frequent mention of people in their usual seats, indicating that Representatives did claim seats for extended periods, whether informally or formally.
When the capital moved from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800, many customs moved with it. Possibly the practice of choosing seats was among them. Why did picking a particular desk matter? It was entirely practical. The best locations were those close to the Speaker’s rostrum, where a Member could hear proceedings and be easily recognized by the Speaker. Based on later evidence, it was likely some variation of a “first-come, first-choose” rule, perhaps with exceptions made for Members of long-standing. Sutherland’s Manual, published in 1839, noted that the tradition encouraged early arrival for the session, something that was devoutly wished by the House’s leaders, who struggled to reach a quorum. Sutherland’s added the helpful tip that ownership of a desk was accomplished by taking possession of the key and writing one’s name on the desk itself.
The House’s meeting room took some years to become fixed, and its configuration did not settle itself into a predictable shape until after the rebuilding of the Capitol in 1819, when the first seating chart of the House was published. By 1826, Robert Taylor of Virginia was dissatisfied enough with whatever method was being used. He introduced the first resolution to conduct a lottery to determine desk assignments. Nothing came of his proposal, but it was proposed again several times in the coming years. Each attempt to introduce a lottery was accompanied by fresh ire at the perceived perfidy of those who had unjustly obtained the best seats. An 1841 dispute over desks illuminates the practice of swapping seats. Two days after the end of the first session of the 27th Congress, John Sergeant of Pennsylvania resigned his seat. When the second session began three months later, two Members, freshmen Robert Caruthers of Tennessee and John Dawson of Louisiana, each claimed it. Caruthers said that he and Sergeant had swapped seats toward the end of the session, and Dawson said that transfer was not sanctioned by the rules of the House, and that therefore Sergeant’s seat was abandoned when he resigned. Debate centered on whether trading when one knew one was leaving was fair or “unwarrantable, partial, and unjust” (Dawson). The House determined (by a vote of 122-51) that the exchange was valid, and that it was “a custom which has heretofore been usual among members of the House.”
Clearly, desk comity had broken down. In 1845, after numerous attempts over the years, behind-doors discussion evidently determined what to do, and the first lottery was held on December 1. Howell Cobb of Georgia offered the resolution, reasoning that there were frequent conflicting claims to the same seat. Debate was humorous but vigorous. The resolution passed 117-77, and was clearly prepared for, because the Clerk immediately produced a box containing the name of each Member, and drew the names himself. Members gathered in the well while waiting to choose their seats. The drawing took about three hours. Newspaper reports say that some Members had tried to retain seats by writing their names in them during the recess, but were required to abandon them.
Although a choice of seats was now provided for by the luck of the draw, some traditional conventions were also followed. Newspapers reported in 1845 that no one chose “Mr. Adams’s seat,” the first indication that some seats were reserved from the lottery for such august Members as John Quincy Adams. By that time, another tradition, that of sitting in party blocs, had begun. Representatives had long chosen seats close to other members of their state delegation, and that slowly turned into a seating by interest and, with the growth of the Whig and Democratic Parties, partisan alliances. Democrats sat to the Speaker’s right. Whigs, and later Republicans, sat to the Speaker’s left. That division continues to the present day.
The Clerk of the House himself conducted the first lottery in 1845. A decade later in 1856, it was well-enough established that a young House Page was directed to pull the names from a container “with his face averted,” the first newspaper mention of using Pages in the lottery. All was not serenity in the Chamber that day, however. Reports included the difficulty of getting Members to surrender their desks. One Representative left his hat and coat on his old desk and told a Page not to let it be touched. Another 10 years into the lottery, newspapers made the first mention of the designated Page being blindfolded, in 1865. It became a favorite subject for reporters covering the opening of Congress, and was depicted at least twice in illustrated journals.
The end of the Civil War in 1865, and the re-entry of states to the Union over the following several Congresses, posed new problems for the desk lottery. First, a series of special sessions called in the Reconstruction Congresses meant that some states had not chosen their delegations by the time the session, and the lottery, began. Second, as reconstructed states re-entered the Union, their Members often arrived after the lottery. In the 40th Congress, there were no fewer than three separate lotteries. The undesirable back row seats, not needed for several years during the smaller wartime Congresses, were called “the verge of the Government.”
Over the next half-century, the desk lottery became more and more ritualized. It took on the trappings of a celebration at the start of a Congress. In 1873, the drawing was formally limited to the opening of a Congress, rather than at the start of every session. More and more Members were added to the ranks of those allowed to choose their seats in advance. By the 1870s, it was the dean of each party, former Speakers, infirm Members, and chairmen of particularly important committees, each of whom placed his hat on his desk to remove it from consideration in the lottery. In the lottery drawing, the Clerk stood in for districts whose Members had not yet arrived. In the 1880s, names on paper were replaced with numbered ivory balls, each corresponding to a particular Member and drawn from a mahogany box.
On January 9, 1908, just a month after the desk lottery took place, a new lottery was held. An office building had been constructed for the Members’ use, and offices were chosen by lot. Members were familiar with the method. Again the numbered balls were placed in a box, and again as each Representative’s number was called, he came forward and chose his congressional home. This time, however, rather than sitting down at a desk in the Chamber, he chose an office number, which was marked off on the massive floor plans set up in the well of the House.
Office space made desks in the crowded House Chamber less attractive workspaces, and soon the desks themselves seemed unnecessary. At the start of the 62nd Congress, in 1911, the last desk lottery took place. A blindfolded Page drew the numbers, with only former Speaker Joe Cannon of Illinois given the privilege of choosing a seat beforehand. By the next Congress, in 1913, the desks had been removed and replaced with benches. Today, 446 seats accommodate the Members of the House. Through the 20th century and into the 21st, the office lottery remained the only vestige of the desk assignment tradition.