Open to the Foreword of the most recent Congressional Directory, and you’ll learn that it’s “one of the oldest working handbooks within the United States Government,” compiled unofficially from 1789 to 1847, and officially by Congress ever since. What it won’t tell you is that the Directory is a rich and multi-layered resource about the House, the Senate, and life on Capitol Hill. They’re yeomanlike and unassuming, but for historians and political scientists they provide a valuable means of studying the first branch of government.
The modern Directories are equal parts phonebook and statistical clearinghouse: they organize each Congress by state, district, and Member (including population figures and personal information); list committee assignments and senior staff; provide terms of service and election information; identify executive branch officials; and give a brief history of the Capitol campus.
Since the early nineteenth century, the Directories have been important tools for the daily work of Congress, on par with even the most basic requirements for running the federal government. It’s probably no coincidence that in 1838 the Clerk of the House reported that he had purchased copies of the Congressional Directory alongside “burnt Treasury notes,” “candelabras and lamps,” and 285 pounds of twine.
Over the years, the amount of information in each Directory has grown alongside the size and complexity of the federal government. The volume for the first session of the 19th Congress (1825–1827), for instance, was pocket-sized—four inches wide by six inches tall, all of 48 pages long—and contained basic residency information and committee rosters. By 1840, the Directory had jumped to 71 pages and included a fold-out seating chart of the House chamber. Nearly 100 years later, when New Deal agencies began proliferating in the 1930s, the Joint Committee on Printing published a supplement to the Directory for the 72nd Congress (1931–1933) just to keep up. And finally, by comparison, the Directory for the 112th Congress (2011–2013) ran to 1,229 pages.
Unsurprisingly, the Congressional Directory has become somewhat of an institution on Capitol Hill, so much so that by the 1920s, newspapers called it “the Washington ‘bible.’” It’s been described as a roster of Washington’s high society, a “Who’s Who of official Washington,” and a “book of the month.” In 1871 the New York Tribune lamented the Directory’s somewhat scattershot early history, making the case that if the Directories had been better managed during the initial Congresses “students of legislative history would have found a series of the most valuable publications of this class ever issued.” That criticism may be partly true, but it also helps explain why the Directory is so important today: in a sense, the Directory’s long publication run acts like a federal genealogy, tracking people, committees, leaders, and agencies. Like the stately trunk of a 225-year-old tree, the Directory anchors them all in one place.
Buried within each edition and hidden between the lines are personal stories and community histories which help make sense of America’s most important institution. “Congressional Directories are always intensely interesting human documents,” the Indianapolis Star wrote in 1913. And it’s that tendency to humanize the institution which also makes the Directories intensely interesting political documents. The seating charts from the middle of the nineteenth century, for example, have the potential to help us better understand how parties developed and how coalitions functioned in the national legislature.
During the first part of the twentieth century, the “anxiously-awaited appearance” of a new Congressional Directory was an event worth reporting. It might not have been front-page news, but each new edition had immediate public value. In the fall of 1933, for instance, the Boston Globe, in its coverage of the new Directory, pointed out that “While it is designed particularly for use of members of Congress, it is invaluable to all Government agencies.” Historians today would agree.
Sources: Congressional Directory, 112th Cong. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2011): forward; U.S. House of Representatives, Expenditure Contingent Fund H.R., 25th Cong., 3rd sess., 1838, Doc. No. 6; Congressional Directory, 19th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington: S.A. Elliot, 1825); Congressional Directory, 26th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, 1840); Daily Boston Globe, 17 September 1929, 3 September 1933; Indianapolis Star, 22 April 1913; New York Times, 18 March 1949, 5 April 1953; New York Times Sunday Magazine, 13 November 1910; New York Tribune, 15 April 1871; Washington Post, 8 January 1937, 12 February 1954.