Since the First Continental Congress, America’s national legislature has taken responsibility in different ways for the transportation, communication, and trade networks necessary to a functioning society. To bolster the nation’s defenses and develop the country’s commerce, early federal lawmakers used public resources to fund the construction of military installations, postal routes, lighthouses, and ports and harbors.
These initial legislative efforts were often fiercely debated in the House. Prior to the Civil War, some Representatives pushed for ambitious building projects while others regularly challenged the constitutionality of Congress’s ability to establish interstate routes. This often caused Congress to either offer states infrastructure subsidies or obtain state governments’ permission to build improvements across state lines. In 1806, for instance, a national turnpike stretching from Cumberland, Maryland, to the Ohio River required the express approval of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland before construction could begin. As Speaker of the House in the years after the War of 1812, Henry Clay of Kentucky outlined a bold plan he called the “American System” to link the growing and restless country with a new network of shipping lanes, roads, and canals.
In 1817, the House of Representatives established the first formal committee on public buildings. Nineteen years later, in 1836, the House created the Public Buildings and Grounds Committee, which has existed as a House standing committee in some iteration ever since. Over the years, separate committees governed rivers and harbors, roads, and flood control. Together, these committees wielded significant influence over interstate transportation, commerce, and the development of America’s infrastructure. Investments in roads, air travel, shipping, and recreation skyrocketed during the New Deal as the federal government worked to combat the Great Depression and spur job growth. Some of America’s most iconic bridges, tunnels, parks, and dams were built during this era.
Following the federal government’s expansion during World War II, the House passed the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, which reassigned and condensed the jurisdictions of many of its committees. Much of the responsibility for policy governing the nation’s infrastructure was combined into the Committee on Public Works. The 1950s then gave birth to the interstate highway system, a federally funded road network stretching across the country. In 1975, the committee became the Public Works and Transportation Committee to reflect Congress’s prominent role in managing the nation’s airports, highways, and shipping industry. Twenty years later, the committee’s name changed again to the modern Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
This Edition for Educators highlights the House’s role in transportation and infrastructure.
George Anthony Dondero of Michigan
Norman Y. Mineta of California
Norman Mineta of California broke a number of barriers during his historic public service career. Elected in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Mineta served on the Public Works and Transportation Committee (and its successor Transportation and Infrastructure) for his entire career, chairing the committee during the 103rd Congress (1993–1995). Throughout his tenure on the committee, Mineta exercised considerable power over aviation and transportation bills. Mineta went on to become the country’s first Asian-American Cabinet member when he joined the William J. Clinton administration as Secretary of Commerce in 2000. In 2001, President George W. Bush nominated Mineta as Secretary of Transportation, where he oversaw the federal government’s response to the devastating effects of September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the nation’s air travel.
Florence Kahn: Congressional Widow to Trailblazing Lawmaker
In 1925, Florence Prag Kahn of California succeeded her late husband, Julius, in a San Francisco-based U.S. House seat. Most early congressional widows served as temporary placeholders until party leaders chose long-term, male successors. But with an insider’s knowledge of House operations and a gift for turning a phrase, Kahn went on to serve in the House for 12 years, “attending to business,” she said, expanding the Bay Area’s infrastructure and military installations, while blazing new trails for women seeking political office.
President Harding Addressing Joint Session of Congress on Coal and Rail Strike Situation
At a Joint Session in August 1922, Congress assembled to hear President Warren G. Harding speak on the coal and railroad strikes, both of which turned violent that summer. Owners hired strikebreakers after union workers protested their wages being cut to pre-World War I levels. Harding vowed to “use the power of government to maintain transportation,” and the following month the U.S. Attorney General obtained an injunction that prohibited strikers from speaking or protesting in virtually any fashion, written or verbal.
Hoping to help those affected by the 1951 Kaw River flood in Missouri, artist Thomas Hart Benton delivered a lithograph with a heartfelt, beseeching letter to each Member of Congress. Nothing resulted immediately from his artistic lobbying effort, but more than 60 years later, his work is a timeless depiction of the aftermath of disaster.
Funding the Expansion of Rural Post Roads
Introduced by Dorsey W. Shackleford of Missouri on January 6, 1916, the Rural Post Roads Act was referred to the Committee on Roads. Edward Everts Browne of Wisconsin defended the bill in debate: “Our road system is wholly inadequate to meet the demands of this twentieth-century civilization.” The federal government depended on the mail service and was therefore obligated to equip its mail carriers. After significant debate, the bill was signed into law on July 11, 1916. It appropriated $85 million for the construction of roads in rural locales and in national forests under the direction of the Secretary of Agriculture and the individual state highway departments.
A Spirited Debate Over a Tennessee Valley Authority Dam
The Highway Safety Act of 1966
On August 18, 1966, the House of Representatives passed the Highway Safety Act of 1966 (S. 3052). In 1965, 49,000 Americans perished in motor vehicle accidents and experts projected that number would climb as more Americans took to the roads each year. Only a handful of states had comprehensive highway safety programs, and most of these were severely underfunded. In his 1966 State of the Union Address, President Lyndon B. Johnson proposed highway safety legislation to the Congress as well as the formation of a new executive agency, the Department of Transportation.
The Career of Representative Michael Kirwan of Ohio
Born in the coal mining town of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1886, Michael Kirwan left school after the third grade. He moved to Ohio in 1907 and, in 1936, won election to the 75th Congress (1937–1939). Kirwan became a prominent Member during his three decades in the House. At the time of his death in 1970, he was the dean of Ohio delegation, seventh in line in House seniority, the second oldest serving Member, chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Works, and chair of the predecessor to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (a position he had held since 1947). Among the projects Kirwan pursued in the House was a canal linking Lake Erie with the Ohio River via rivers located in his Youngstown district, and the National Aquarium (colleagues teasingly referred to them as “Mike’s big ditch” and “Mike’s aquarium”).
New York Representative Susan Molinari chaired the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Railroads from 1995 to 1999. As chair, she not only helped shape federal policy but also changed how the subcommittee conducted its hearings. Prior to Molinari taking over the gavel, the subcommittee traditionally let officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Rail Administration testify first. “The room would be packed, the cameras would be in,” Molinari said. But when those federal administrators finished, “half the room would leave,” and the other witnesses who were scheduled to appear before the committee—“who gave up their time to travel, left their jobs, didn’t get paid to come testify,” she said—often ended up speaking to a much smaller crowd. “I just would feel so awful,” Molinari remembered. In response, she restructured the subcommittee’s hearings so that “whoever came the furthest and had put the most effort in, testified first.” That way, everyone in the hearing room—including agents from DOT and the Federal Rail Administration—would be present for their remarks. “It just constantly frustrated my friends in the federal government,” Molinari recalled.
Look in the oral history transcripts of Representatives Sue Kelly of New York, Donna Edwards of Maryland, and Allyson Schwartz of Pennsylvania for more experiences on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Federal Highway Act of 1956
The Federal-Aid Road Act of 1944 mandated construction of an interstate highway system. More than a decade later, however, only a fraction of the proposed roads had been built because of the cost. In 1956, the combination of a more populous and mobile nation, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s recognition during World War II of the importance of a highway network to mobility and defense, prompted Congress to provide the funding to construct an interstate highway system.
Memorial for a Pacific Railroad
Hoping to spur continued western settlement, Congress began considering the creation of a transcontinental railroad during the mid-nineteenth century. In 1853, Congress tasked the Army Topographic Corps, under the direction of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, to survey possible routes for an east-west railroad. Despite identification of four possible routes, sectional in-fighting within Congress stalled any movement on the issue.
Utah Territory Mail Routes
States and territories petitioned Congress to fund postal routes, which they believed were necessary not only for communication but prosperity. Two memorials from January 1861 requested particular mail routes in the Utah Territory because of “an earnest desire for the full development of all the resources of the great west” and because an “increase in business in this Territory and the rising settlements along the route, the wants of a reading public in a fast age, all combine in calling loudly for the increase of mail facilities.”
A Congressional Made Man
In the winter of 1842, inventor Samuel F. B. Morse nervously wrote to his brother Sidney Morse from Washington, DC. He ruminated, “I have too much experience of delusive hopes to indulge in any premature exultation. Now there is no opposition, but it may spring up unexpectantly and defeat all.” Morse hoped that the House of Representatives would appropriate $30,000 “to test the practicability of establishing a system of electro magnetic telegraphs.” Morse feared that without the funding he could not continue developing and testing his invention. Although Morse had been reassured by many that the appropriation would pass, he remained apprehensive.
Railroaded to Congress
His friends had to beg him to run for office and he spent little time, if any, campaigning. Yet in 1866, the people of western Iowa voted overwhelmingly to send Grenville Mellen Dodge to the House of Representatives. Although he had demonstrated time and again that he was a natural leader, General Dodge loathed being on Capitol Hill. He much preferred exploring the western wilderness, scoping out the path of the transcontinental railroad. No oath of office could keep him from it.
Time Travel: Daylight Saving Time and the House
Debates over daylight saving time in the first half of the twentieth century reflected a growing divide between America’s rural farming communities, which opposed the idea, and the country’s urban centers, which supported it. That philosophical difference extended to Congress where Members representing rural constituencies and those representing industrialized districts often heatedly disagreed about whether the government should be responsible for adjusting America’s clocks.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory