Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Front and Center

General View in the House Chamber as the 89th Congress Convened/tiles/non-collection/4/4-30-rostrum-89thcongress-PA2014_09_0073.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives By the time the 89th Congress convened in 1965, the rostrum installed in 1951 was relatively recent, but legislative procedures had changed little since the previous century. Electronic voting would not be introduced for nearly another decade, leaving roll call votes to be conducted by voice.
The Speaker’s rostrum announces its importance visually. Framed by walls of multicolored marble, columns, symbolic relief sculptures, and a large American flag, it is located front-and-center in the House Chamber. From here, the presiding officer—the Speaker of the House or designated Speaker pro tempore—runs the meetings of the House of Representatives, rapping a gavel to call for order or announce an action. In the open space in front of the rostrum, called the well, Members of Congress make speeches from one of a pair of lecterns. But between these two points, a crowd of staff takes on an array of tasks that have been integral to House proceedings from its earliest days.

The original rostrum—a smaller tiered desk, made from white marble—dated from 1857, and remained in use until the chamber got a complete renovation. A row of spindles decorated the front of the lowest level, while the upper levels had pilasters carved into the surface of the marble. The painted cast iron wall behind the rostrum was decorated with floral motifs and fasces, symbolizing strength in unity.

Rostrum in the House Chamber/tiles/non-collection/4/4-30-rostrum-closeup-ocomm_PN2015_07_0031.xml Image courtesy of the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives The rostrum is backed by multicolored marble and bronze relief fasces.
The current rostrum, installed in 1951, has more space and a different decorative style, but the positions and work to be done remain the same. Rather than marble, the new walnut furniture appealed to the tastes of the mid-20th century. The updated style also added symbols and inscriptions reflecting the United States’s role in the postwar world. Relief carvings of laurel branches—a symbol of victory—frame the upper tier, where the presiding officer works. Oak leaf wreaths, symbolizing longevity, decorate the broad lower tier. National ideals are more explicitly stated in between the wreaths: Union, Justice, Tolerance, Liberty, and Peace. Relief fasces—though now cast in bronze—still appear on the wall behind the rostrum.

When the House is in session and votes are taking place, many people crowd this inspiring piece of furniture. Who are they, and what are they doing? The presiding officer takes the one spot at the top tier, and keeps the meeting on track. He or she must recognize those who want to speak, rule on points of order, and maintain decorum in the chamber. Two House Officers—both to the left of center in the photograph—assist in these tasks. Closest to the presiding officer, the Parliamentarian is the resident expert on rules and precedents and advises on procedural questions. Further to the left, at a separate table, the Sergeant at Arms (or the Assistant Sergeant at Arms) sits. This officer carries the mace into the chamber, restores order, and prevents altercations.

The rest of the people on the rostrum keep records, run votes, and move forward business before the House. Starting on the left, on the second tier of desks, we find the journal clerk. The Constitution requires the job they do: compiling the daily minutes of proceedings in the House and publishing the official record, called the House Journal. The tally clerk sits next to the journal clerk, and in modern times, runs the electronic voting system, but has always overseen the recording of votes, received reports from committees, and prepared the Calendars of the United States House of Representatives and History of Legislation. This report goes out to every congressional office each day the House is in session. A second tally clerk—the “standing tally clerk”—stands on the lowest level of the rostrum and collects votes cast via well cards (the manual back-up for Members who forgot their electronic voting cards, or want to change their vote in the last 5 minutes of a 15-minute vote) and works with the seated tally clerk to ensure the accuracy of the vote.

The reading clerk sits right of center on the rostrum’s middle tier. This clerk reads aloud communications from the Senate, House bills, amendments, and other legislative matters. The reading clerk also tracks amendments adopted during the consideration of a bill during session. The parliamentarian's clerk fills out the right side of the second tier.

First House Journal/tiles/non-collection/4/4-30-rostrum-firsthousejournal_na_PN2018_02_0002_1.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration A journal clerk handwrote the overview of Congress’s first meeting on March 4, 1789. Ever since, per the constitutional requirement, each legislative day has been faithfully recorded in the House Journal.
The bill clerk sits on the far right of the rostrum’s bottom tier next to the bill hopper (a box into which Members place measures they want to introduce). Predictably, the bill clerk takes care of the bills deposited in the hopper—receiving and processing bills, resolutions, lists of co-sponsors, and texts of amendments.

Official reporters don’t actually sit on the rostrum, but are an integral part of proceedings. Seated at a table just in front of the rostrum, in the area called the well, official reporters take down word-for-word transcripts of each day’s work. This transcript becomes the Congressional Record, which has been produced since 1873. Before that, Members’ speeches were published in the Annals of Congress, the Register of Debates, and Congressional Globe. The well cards—the manually cast votes handed to the standing tally clerk—are kept at the official reporter’s table.

With all this important and critical activity, the fancy framing and inspiring words inscribed on the rostrum seem perfectly appropriate. Without the work that happens here, the House would not fulfill its duty to pass laws and document the details of the process.

Sources: Guide to Individuals Seated on the House Dais, Congressional Research Service, November 5, 2018; Report of the Architect of the Capitol on the Reconstruction of the Roofs and Skylights over the House Wing of the Capitol and Remodeling of the House Chamber, GPO, 1952; Basic Training: Parliamentary Process, Facts and Strategies, Committee on Rules, March 9, 2011.