In the span of five months during the winter and spring of 1962 two major entrenched powers faced off in an obstinate battle of wills. This wasn’t a traditional war, but more of a smoldering, protracted conflict between long-time rivals with competing interests. Territory was contested. Stakes escalated. Worldviews were challenged. Catastrophe beckoned. And all the while, the ability of the federal government to function hung in the balance.
The belligerents in this cold war were not the United States and the Soviet Union, but were instead two octogenarian legislators—both committee chairmen with a combined 89 years of congressional experience. At issue wasn’t the clash of capitalism and communism, but rather the clash between the House and Senate to control the appropriations process. The theater of battle wasn’t Eastern Europe or Asia or Cuba, but the U.S. Capitol—the House in command of the building’s southern wing and the Senate in control of the north.
As House Appropriations Committee chairman Clarence Cannon of Missouri, 83, and Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Carl Hayden of Arizona, 84, engaged in a tug-of-war over seemingly insignificant procedural steps—where to hold conference committees on spending bills and who to lead them—fundamental tensions between the two legislative chambers became public. An unattributed quotation that circulated among House Democrats for decades as “folk wisdom” neatly encapsulated the often contentious working relationship between the House and Senate. “The House Republicans are not the enemy. They are the opposition. The enemy is the Senate.”
The episode also underscored the human side of lawmaking—how personalities, friendships, and animosities often weigh heavily on the legislative process. So much so that in this case, the dispute between two cranky but traditionally friendly Democrats threatened the annual transition from one fiscal year to the next, a turnover that usually went as smoothly as clockwork.
Two constitutional provisions provided the kindling for this fight.
To start, each individual bill that goes to the President for review must be passed in identical form by the House and Senate—same bill number, same bill text. When major differences occur, both chambers appoint managers to resolve the issues in bicameral meetings called conferences. If, for instance, a House bill calls for $10 million and the Senate bill calls for $20 million, it would be up to the conferees to find a compromise amount that a majority of the conference could agree on. That new bill would then need to be passed by both the House and Senate before being sent to the White House.
Secondly, the Constitution states that legislation “for raising Revenue shall originate in the House.” Although it says nothing about which chamber has the prerogative to spend federal money, the House had traditionally initiated appropriations bills as a matter of course, and the Senate almost always deferred to the House. But as Hayden reasoned, appropriations bills did not raise revenue, which he believed gave the Senate equal standing to author spending measures.
Over the years, these two guidelines had given rise to a series of customs that by 1962 created festering resentments in both the House and the Senate. It irked the cantankerous Cannon, who was known to resort to fisticuffs in committee, that the Senate traditionally hosted all conference committees on appropriations bills, and that a Senator usually presided over these meetings. For the courtly Hayden, who was backed by the much more militant Richard Russell of Georgia, the fact that the House originated all spending bills seemed like an arbitrary requirement based on an expansive interpretation of Constitution.
In addition to these irritations, Cannon believed that on a policy level the Senate was too generous toward requests for funding from the many departments, currying favor with executive agencies by acting as a “court of appeals” for federal expenditures. If the House denied a request, agency officials knew to go to the Senate where the odds of securing more money improved.
At the beginning of January 1962, Cannon began chipping away at the Senate’s exclusive conference perks when the House Appropriations Committee approved his resolution calling for all subsequent conference committees to rotate between the House and Senate sides of the Capitol. The proximity of the conference meetings to the Senate chamber had real legislative consequences, he said, and put House Members at a disadvantage. “When the bells rang for a quorum call, the Senators ran out the door, slipped into the elevator, answered to their names, and came back,” Cannon complained. “But we were two blocks away from the House and sometimes we couldn’t get back in time to answer to our names. It took us so long that we would have to cancel the conference altogether.” It didn’t help that Cannon suffered from emphysema and had to be driven to and from the Senate.
Hayden presented the House committee’s resolution to the Senate Appropriations Committee in early February. Following the lead of Russell, the committee decided to counter with the request that half of all appropriations bills originate in the Senate.
While those issues sat unresolved, the conference committee to fund the Treasury Department and the Post Office met on the Senate side of the Capitol. As the conference ended, the head of the House delegation offered to host the next meeting on his side of the Capitol. When the Senate delegation head stated that that would be fine only when the Senate could begin introducing appropriations bills, the House leader replied, “That will be never.” With the impasse, appropriations bills waiting to be resolved in conference began piling up.
Prior to the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, federal fiscal years ended every July 1 and in 1962 several executive agencies and judicial courts had almost run out of money by mid-June. When Cannon introduced a supplemental appropriation to cover the operating expenses for another few weeks, Hayden offered a compromise. He proposed that the conference on Cannon’s supplemental bill be held in the Old Supreme Court Chamber (now the Old Senate Chamber) just steps away from the Rotunda, but still technically located on the Senate side of the Capitol. Cannon reluctantly agreed.
When the two committee delegations finally met, Hayden proposed that all subsequent conferences for appropriations bills be held in the Old Supreme Court Chamber. Cannon countered with a proposal to alternate the right to preside over the conference, finally giving the House more control. Hayden then asked that the Senate be allowed to introduce half of the appropriations bills. At that, Cannon lost his temper and the detente ended. “We’re right back where we started,” Hayden told waiting reporters.
A few days later Cannon offered a truce. He agreed to set the meeting location in the Old Supreme Court Chamber, and again asked for a rotating system for conference chairmen. But even this peace offering blew up when the Senate doubled the cost of the House’s emergency supplemental bill. A furious Cannon pointed out that over the previous 10 years the Senate had added a total of $32 billion to House spending bills, a cost equivalent to the rise in the national debt. At the last minute both chambers passed a continuing resolution to fund all government agencies through the July 4th recess.
As the continuing resolution neared its expiration, it was Hayden’s turn to offer an olive branch. This time, instead of sending the two ornery chairmen to the table, each committee designated a team of negotiators. Their talks led to a multi-part solution: 1) for the remainder of the session the House would initiate all appropriations bills; 2) presiding officers in conference would be determined by seniority; 3) conferences would be held as close as possible to the center of the Capitol; and 4) a new joint committee would study conference procedures and make recommendations to improve the process. On July 18, both Appropriations Committees agreed to the terms. Two days later the House and Senate held the first conference on federal spending since April in the Old Supreme Court Chamber. The presiding officer was determined by the flip of a coin.
As any desire to revisit the brinksmanship of the previous months faded, the exasperated Senate Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield, went to Cannon and Hayden with a long-term fix. As part of the renovation extending the East Front of the Capitol, architects included a last-minute addition of a conference room that spanned the midway point of the building—half on the House side and half on the Senate side—providing a perfectly neutral territory in which to negotiate federal spending levels.
That room was removed in the early 2000s in order to clear the way for the Capitol Visitor Center. But in the early 1960s it became perhaps the most indispensable space on Capitol Hill.
Sources: Baltimore Sun, 19 June 1962; New York Times, 17 June 1962, 23 June 1962, 25 June 1962, 12 July 1962, 13 July 1962, 15 July 1962; Washington Post, 24 April 1962, 22 June 1962, 12 February 2009; Elizabeth Rybicki, “Resolving Legislative Differences in Congress: Conference Committees and Amendments Between the Houses,” 3 August 2015, Report 98-696, Congressional Research Service; “Senate-House Feud Stalls Appropriations,” CQ Almanac, 1962, 18th ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1963): ch. 4, 143–146; Ross K. Baker, House and Senate, 3rd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001); Richard F. Fenno Jr., The Power of the Purse: Appropriations Politics in Congress (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1966); Stephen Horn, Unused Power: The Work of the Senate Committee on Appropriations (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1970); Jeffrey L. Pressman, House v. Senate: Conflict in the Appropriations Process (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966).Follow @USHouseHistory