In 1925, Bertrand Snell, chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, was elated. He pulled up to the White House in his long, dark Caddy, got out, and pointed with his cigar to his new secret weapon: a congressional license plate. A few House tags like Snell’s still survive in the House Collection. They may have been just thin strips of metal affixed to the top of a regular license plate, but the plates ended up giving Snell and his colleagues motoring superpowers.
The freedom to be an out-of-state driver was the tags’ original intent. Although that detail poses no difficulty today, a century ago it caused Snell plenty of complications when he traveled from his home state of New York to his job in Congress. In the early 1900s, many states demanded that travelers purchase new license plates as soon as they crossed state lines. A few neighboring states hammered out reciprocity agreements, but others engaged in fierce automobile registration spats.
The necessity of the little tin congressional tags arose from the interstate animosity that ran particularly hot in the national capital region in the 1910s and 1920s. Washington required all non-residents to get DC plates, so most Members of Congress registered for them when they arrived. Maryland wrote tickets enthusiastically to cars with DC tags but allowed cars from other states to cross its borders unbothered. John Linthicum of Maryland, perhaps under pressure from his fellow Representatives, sent a letter to the entire House membership with tips on how to evade the cops. At least one Member wrote Linthicum a note of appreciation (“it was very considerate of you to get this information for your colleagues”), but the larger issue bedeviled Congress. Some Representatives living in Washington ended up with two or even three license plates dangling from their bumpers. Weary of convoluted regulations and enthusiastic ticketers, by 1925 Congress introduced congressional tags, brokered peace between Maryland and Washington, and passed the comprehensive District of Columbia Traffic Act to rid Washington of its many convoluted and contradictory laws.
Almost as soon as Congress passed the traffic act, they began to amend it, and in the process gave congressional cars a near-mythic ability that every big city driver dreamed of possessing. Changes in 1931 gave congressional tag holders the ability to park “in any available curb space in the District of Columbia.” The legislation was clear that the visit should be for official business, but reporters characterized it as license for Members to park “where they please, when they please, and so long as they please.” Congress also expanded eligibility for a congressional tag beyond Senators and Representatives, slowly ballooning the number to include the parliamentarians, dispersing clerks, assistant secretaries, and the attending physician. Decades later, staffers received plates that differentiated them from Members of Congress.
When it became clear that a congressional tag gave the lucky holders immunity in most traffic matters, a black market for the plates sprang up. Police department courtesy plus VIP parking made congressional tags a coveted item no matter how often Members said, as William Schulte of Indiana did, that they would “stand behind the Police Department 100 per cent when they enforce the traffic laws.” Newspapers reported that scores of lost, stolen, duplicated, and out-of-date plates were circulating in the city. During Prohibition, bootleggers in particular found them helpful in transporting illegal liquor. By the 1940s and 1950s, Congress began to rein in the extra-official use of tags. One committee report recommended making it illegal to use out-of-date tags.
Bootleggers aside, early congressional tags bestowed a certain distinction on automobiles that carried them. The numbering system on the plates made it easy to identify the top dogs. Number 1 went to the President of the Senate and number 2 to the Speaker of the House. Early on, Capitol Hill columnists noted the proliferation of new tags, in zippy color combinations, at the start of each new Congress. From Bertrand Snell’s first excited spin around town, all the way through the rest of the 20th century, every two years new tags served as a sign that Congress was in the starting gate and revving its engines. Eventually, reforms of the post–Watergate Era eliminated many congressional perks, but the H-plates lived on, primarily as mild-mannered parking permits for the House’s many garages and outdoor lots.
Sources: S. 4207, 68th Cong. (1925); H.R. 3802, 69th Cong. (1926); H.R. 14922, 71st Cong. (1931); S. 4123, 72nd Congress (1932); H.R. 2552, 79th Cong. (1945); House Committee on the District of Columbia, Amending Paragraph C of Section 6 of the District of Columbia Traffic Act, 79th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 307 (1945); Baltimore Sun, 27 July 1916; Boston Globe, 4 September 1931; Indianapolis Times, 5 September 1929; Omaha World Herald, 24 August 1931; Washington Evening Star, 28 April 1935, 31 October 1937; Washington Evening Sunday Star, 10 December 1916; Washington Post, 3 December 1925, 19 February 1938, 4 January 1939, 22 May 1945; Washington Post and Time Herald, 10 July 1959; Washington Star, 26 February 1939; “Early Motoring in the District of Columbia – Howard S. Fisk: About the Photographer and His Work,” DCplates.net, last modified 31 December 2017, http://dcplates.com/Traffic10.htm; “Registration Reciprocity,” DCplates.net, last modified 31 December 2017, http://dcplates.com/Reciprocity.htm, “U.S. Congress Permits,” DCplates.net, last modified 31 December 2017, http://dcplates.com/Congress.htm#Staff/.Follow @USHouseHistory