Guide to the Records of the U.S. House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989 (Record Group 233)
Chapter 1. An Introduction to Research in the Records of Congress
Table of Contents
1.1 In 1937, after a National Archives appraiser first examined the records of the United States House of Representatives, he concluded that the unbound records of the House contained a"great wealth of material touching every phase of our national existence."1 Fifty years later that assessment is still valid. A discussion of research techniques best suited to locate information in that "great wealth" of original records and related printed materials forms the bulk of this chapter. The discussion can be accessed below:
1.2 Before their transfer to the National Archives most records of Congress had been housed in the offices, attics, basements, and storage rooms of the Capitol. They had suffered from neglect, vermin, and pilferage, abuses common to most collections of older Government records housed in unsuitable and unsupervised storage areas. In addition, when the British invaded Washington, DC, House records were subjected to a hasty evacuation that proved to be disastrous. The Senate successfully removed its records from the city, but the House was not so fortunate. Having waited too long to secure wagons, the Clerk of the House found that, "every wagon, and almost every cart, belonging to the city, had been previously impressed into the service of the United States, for the transportation of the baggage of the army." While some records were saved, others such as the secret journal of the Congress and a great many petitions were lost to the fire when the British burned the Capitol. The incident caused the Clerk of the House, Patrick Magruder, to resign.2
1.3 While the fire destroyed some records of the House, the rules of Congress affected the completeness of Senate records. Before 1946, Senate committees were instructed to return to the Secretary of the Senate at the end of a Congress all papers "referred" to the committee, but the directive (Rule 32) said nothing about materials received directly by the committee or created by the committee. Also, it was not clear whether the records of special and select committees were under the Secretary's jurisdiction. Consequently, some records probably were not preserved. The Clerk of the House was more fortunate in this regard. In 1880, House rules required that all committee records be delivered to the Clerk within three days after the final adjournment of each Congress and that permission of the committee that originated a record was necessary for the withdrawal of records. This greatly increased the Clerk's control over these materials.3
1.4 As the 20th century approached, both Houses of Congress experienced overcrowding. In 1900, the House temporarily solved this problem by transferring some 5,000 of its oldest bound volumes to the Library of Congress and continued to transfer some of its records to the Library for the next 40 years. Despite their new location, these records were still, as the statute stated: "part of the files of the House of Representatives, subject to its orders and rules."4
1.5 In 1934, the National Archives was established as the depository for the historic records of the Federal Government, namely all permanently valuable records of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. A preliminary survey by the Archives staff in late 1936, revealed that the Secretary of the Senate had been overwhelmed by his responsibility to protect the Senate's records. The Archives report indicated that some materials were on the floor in damp rooms where they were subject to "extensive growths of mold and fungi. . . . Numerous signs of insect damage indicate an extensive infestation by both slow and fast moving insects. The presence of rodents was also noted in Room 5." The National Archives recommendation was to transfer all but the most recent of the Senate's records to the new Archives building. In April 1937, the Senate sent approximately 4,000 cubic feet of records to the National Archives.5
1.6 Securing the transfer of the records of the House, however, was not so easy. In late 1936, the Archivist of the United States received permission from the Clerk to examine House records. From January through March 1937, T. R. Schellenberg of the National Archives surveyed the House's historic records still stored in the Capitol building. He reported many of the same conditions that existed for Senate records, noting that some were: "exposed to extremes of heat and cold, to an accumulation of dust, to neglect, and accessible for pilfering." In another instance: "Room contains a slop sink, and has a leaking joint causing partial destruction of records of the 47th Congress. Room dirty and ill-kept. Records infested with vermin." To buttress its case the Archives sent a photographer to record these conditions. The photographs and the examiner's report were sent to the Clerk. A draft resolution authorizing the transfer, identical to the Senate resolution, was prepared by the Archives and delivered to the chairman of the House Committee on the Library. The Committee obligingly reported out a resolution and report to the Archives liking. For a variety of reasons, however, the House chose not to transfer its records to the National Archives until nearly a decade later.6
1.7 Although the transfer of House records awaited the passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, records storage continued to be a problem for the House. In late 1944, the Washington Post reported that the House was in a quandary as to what to do about the mountains of records created by a number of special committees, such as the House Un-American Activities Committee. Representative Everett Dirksen of Illinois suggested that Congress should establish "an archives bureau for the preservation of the voluminous records of the special committees." Archivist Solon J. Buck suggested meeting with Dirksen to offer assistance if Congress really wanted a separate archives. "On the other hand," he continued, "the interested members of Congress should know," that the National Archives could be used "effectively for their purposes, with confidential records under seal and to be consulted only under authorization of specified officers of Congress." Shortly thereafter, Thad Page, the National Archives legislative liaison, contacted Dirksen and others offering the Archives help in setting up a separate congressional facility. Page noted that: "We feel that since Congress has already provided facilities here that would insure their preservation it would be the part of economy to use them." He enclosed copies of the 1937 resolution and report from the House Committee on the Library favoring the transfer of House records to the National Archives. A day later, Dirksen announced that he would introduce a bill to effect the transfer.7
1.8 In December 1944, Congress formed a joint committee to study the organization of Congress. This gave the National Archives and the historical community a chance to present its case on a whole range of congressional records problems. On the Senate side the inadequacies of Rule 32 were, of course, paramount. A change in the rule giving the Secretary authority over all committee records, not just those that were referred, was recommended. Also recommended was the transfer of the records of the House to the National Archives. The results of the joint committee's deliberations was the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946.8
1.9 The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 became a milestone for the archives of Congress. First it required committees to maintain a record of their proceedings, providing for the first time in history a continuous record of committee votes and hearings. In addition, the act provided that a legislator's committee staff and personal staff had to remain separate, thereby reducing the possibility that personal papers and committee records would become intermixed. Finally, the Secretary was given greater authority over all Senate committee records and the House was required to transfer all of its records for the first 76 Congresses (through 1941) to the National Archives. The section of the statute governing the records of Congress directed that:
The Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives, acting jointly, shall obtain at the close of each Congress all the non-current records of the Congress and of each congressional committee and transfer them to the National Archives for preservation, subject to the orders of the Senate or the House of Representatives, respectively.9 The traditions of the House concerning committee records had been codified and extended to the Senate.
1.10 The passage of the Federal Records Act of 1950, completed the legal structure that currently governs the records of Congress. This act empowered the Administrator of General Services (an authority since transferred to the Archivist of the United States) to accept for deposit with the National Archives "the records of any Federal agency or of the Congress of the United States that are determined by the Archivist to have sufficient historical or other value to warrant their continued preservation by the United States Government."10
Records of Congress in the National Archives
1.11 The textual records of the Congress, nearly 50,000 cubic feet of material, are administered by the Center for Legislative Archives of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The Center has custody of eight record groups three of them composed of the records of the Congress, itself, four composed of the records of legislative organizations, and one composed of the record set of U.S. Government publications--sometimes referred to as the Government Printing Office (GPO) collection. They are: The records of the U.S. Senate (Record Group 46), the records of the U.S. House of Representatives (Record Group 233), the records of Joint Committees of Congress (Record Group 128), the operating records of the Government Printing Office (Record Group 149), the records of the Temporary National Economic Committee (Record Group 144), the records of various congressionally created commissions (Record Group 148), the records of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), 1921- (Record Group 411), and the publications of the U.S. Government (Record Group 287).
1.12 The overwhelming majority of the records, over 46,000 as of 1987, comprise the records of the Senate and House of Representatives. In general, they span the years 1789 to the present with no fixed cutoff dates for either the House or the Senate. They include materials referred to and generated by the many committees of Congress, as well as the records of the offices of the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives. Few private papers of Senators and Representatives are included among the records.
Organization of the Records of the House and the Senate
1.13 An understanding of the arrangement of the records is crucial in formulating a strategy for locating relevant materials. The National Archives has organized the records of each major administrative unit of government into record groups. As stated above, the records of Congress in the National Archives comprise three record groups: Records of the U.S. Senate (Record Group 46), Records of the U.S. House of Representatives (Record Group 233), and Records of Joint Committees of Congress (Record Group 128).
1.14 Below the record group level the records of the House, 1789-1962, and the records of the Senate, 1789-1946, are arranged primarily by Congress, thereunder by activity and type of records or series, and thereunder by committee. This basic arrangement is reflected in the classification scheme developed by the National Archives in the late 1930's. Under this scheme each series of records was given an alpha-numeric file number that signified where the records stand in relation to the entire body of congressional records. All of the file numbers assigned to the general records of the House through 1946 are listed in the following National Archives publication: Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the United States House of Representatives, 1789-1946 (2 vols.). Senate file numbers are listed in a loose leaf inventory available from the Center for Legislative Archives. These finding aids are invaluable for anyone doing extensive research in congressional records.
1.15 Because many of the documents cited in the chapters of this guide are identified by file numbers, the following analysis of the various elements comprising a file number, such as HR 34A-G17.2, is provided. In general the letters and numbers to the left of the hyphen identify the Congress and congressional activity involved, while the ones to the right of the hyphen indicate the series and file segment within the records of an individual Congress in which a file is located.
1.16 The first element of the file number is either HR or SEN, which indicates that the record is either a House or a Senate record. The next number identifies the Congress in which the record was either created or referred. Beginning in 1789 with the First Congress, a new Congress has convened every two years. To determine the Congress in session for a given time period, consult "U.S. Congress Session Dates, 1789-Present" on the website for the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives.
1.17 The next letter in the file number signifies the category of congressional activity with which the record was involved. These letters are common to all Congresses and do not change. For House records the categories are: "A" records of legislative proceedings, "B" records of impeachments, and "C" records of the Clerk of the House. The most voluminous category of records relate to legislative proceedings. Legislative proceedings include the consideration of bills and resolutions, the referral of petitions and memorials, the recording of this activity in minute books and journals, the receipt of messages from the executive branch, and election records. Records of impeachments document Congress' constitutional prerogatives to impeach and convict certain officials in the executive and judicial branches. The Clerk of the House performs numerous responsibilities, such as maintaining the Journal, examining legislation for accuracy, and in the 20th century, processing filings by lobbyists and candidates for Congress.
1.18 Senate records are arranged into similar categories. "A" still designates records of legislative proceedings, but "B" stands for records of executive proceedings, which relate to the consideration of treaties and nominations. Senate records relating to impeachments are therefore labelled category "C." The Senate official who performs duties similar to the Clerk of the House is the Secretary of the Senate, whose records are filed in category "D."
1.19 Within each category records are further arranged by record type or series. These series include journals, petitions referred to committees, committee reports and papers, and papers accompanying specific bills and resolutions. In the file number, the letter following the hyphen designates the series. Unlike the letters signifying the category of activity, which do not change from Congress to Congress, the letters designating the series change because new types of records or series have been created. Consequently, the "G" designation for the 34th Congress stands for Petitions and Memorials, but the same series under the 50th Congress is designated "H."
1.20 The records within each series are arranged in various ways depending on the nature of the records. The three most prominent and heavily used series--committee papers, papers accompanying specific bills and resolutions, and petitions and memorials referred to committees--are usually arranged alphabetically by the name of the committee to which the action was referred. In the case of these three series, records are often further delineated by subject. The "17.2" portion of the file number, therefore, signifies the committee and subject. Entries for the 34th Congress in the preliminary inventory of the House records, for example, show that the Committee on Public Lands is the 17th committee listed alphabetically under the series heading for petitions and memorials. Petitions received by that committee are organized under seven topical headings, the second of which concerns "land laws in respect to bounty, graduation, and redemption."
1.21 Use of the classification scheme for Senate records was discontinued in 1947 and for House records in 1962 although a modified version is used for some records of the House through the 90th Congress. In general records received after those dates are arranged first by Congress, and then by committee or subcommittee. Records below the committee or subcommittee level are arranged by series such as legislative files, nomination files, subject files, hearings, and Presidential messages received. More detailed information about the records can be found in the appropriate chapters of this guide.
Organization of the Records of the Joint Committees
1.22 The Records of Joint Committees of Congress (Record
Group 128) are organized into two groups, depending upon whether they were
transferred to the National Archives by the House or by the Senate. Both "House"
and "Senate" joint committee records are further arranged by Congress
and thereunder alphabetically by the name of the committee. Prior to World War
II, allocation of the records followed no clear pattern. Consequently, records
for the same committees may be among joint committee records received from both
the House and Senate presumably because House members of a joint committee retired
their records through the Clerk of the House, while Senate members retired their
records through the Secretary of the Senate. After 1946, administrative responsibility
for each joint committee, its staff and its records, was specifically assigned
to either the House or the Senate. This action affects users in one important
way: the rules of access of the Chamber that transferred the records to the
National Archives prevail.
1.23 Cartographic Records: Most of the cartographic records of the Congress were prepared by executive agencies such as the General Land Office and the Army's Office of the Chief of Engineers for use as exhibits or as appendixes accompanying reports to Congress. Some were published by private concerns under contract with the government. Some of the original manuscript maps form the basis for later published versions. While most congressional cartographic materials were transferred to the Cartographic and Architectural Records Branch of the National Archives, many maps are still found among textual holdings of the Center for Legislative Archives.
1.24 The major series of cartographic records of the Senate include: Manuscript maps, 1807-1907 (278 items); published maps, 1790-1958 (777 items); maps relating to internal improvements, 1826-35 (244 items); and Senate committee maps, 1791-1866 (6 items). The major series of cartographic records among the records of the House include: Published maps, 1828-1930 (377 items); manuscript maps, 1807-1907 (278 items); and House committee maps, 1889-1985 (317 items). For detailed descriptions of maps published through 1843, see Martin P. Claussen and Herman R. Friis, Descriptive Catalog of Maps Published by Congress, 1817-1843 (Washington: Privately published, 1941). These records are in the custody of the Special Media Archives Service Division, Maps and Plans Group (NWCS), National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001; specific inquiries about them should be directed to that branch.
1.25 Photographic Records: The Senate has not transferred any still picture series to the National Archives. The House transferred about 300 items dating from 1880 to 1896. A few photographs are scattered among textual holdings of the Senate and House. The activities of individual Members of Congress, groups of Members, and scenes of the Capitol Building have been recorded by photographers working for other Government agencies and may be among the photographs accessioned by the National Archives from other Government agencies. The photographs mentioned in this section are in the custody of the Special Media Archives Services Division, National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, Maryland 20740-6001; specific inquiries should be directed to that branch.
1.26 Electronic Records: Among Senate records in the National Archives, there are electronic records from the following committees: Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (Ervin Committee), 1973-74; Committee on Governmental Affairs, Majority Office, 99th Cong. (1986); Committee on Governmental Affairs, Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations, Majority Office, 99th Cong. (1986); and impeachment trial committee (trial of Judge Harry E. Claiborne), executive session, 99th Cong. (1986). Among House records in the National Archives, there are electronic records from the following committees: Select Committee on Assassinations, 1979, and the Judiciary Committee's inquiry into the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, 1974. These records, except those records from the Select Committee on Assassinations concerning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, are in the custody of the Center for Electronic Records, National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001; specific inquiries should be directed to the center. Records concerning the assassination of President Kennedy are now part of the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection, Access and FOIA Staff, Room 6350, National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001.
1.27 Motion Picture and Audio Records: Among Senate records in the National Archives, there are motion picture and/or sound recordings from the following administrative units: Committee on Education and Labor, 1936-38; Commission on the Operation of the Senate, 1975-76; Special Committee of the Senate to Investigate the National Defense Program at Philadelphia Signal Depot, 1946; and the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, 1972-1974. Among House records in the National Archives, there are motion picture and sound recordings from the following units: Select Committee to Investigate Communist Aggression Against Poland and Hungary, 1954; Office of the Clerk, 1979-1986; and the Select Committee on Assassinations, 1963-1978 (records concerning the assassination of President Kennedy are now part of the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection, Access and FOIA Staff, Room 6350, National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001). Among the records of joint committees in the National Archives, there are motion pictures from Joint Congressional Committees on Inaugural Ceremonies, 1965-81. The materials mentioned in this section are in the custody of the Special Media Archives Services Division, National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, Maryland 20740-6001; specific inquiries should be directed to that branch.
1.28 Videotapes of Floor Proceedings: In 1979, the House initiated televised coverage of its floor proceedings; the Senate began its coverage in 1986. The National Archives maintains videotape copies of House proceedings from 1983 to the present and it has Senate tapes from 1986 to the present. Videotapes of House proceedings from 1979-82 are not extant. The materials mentioned in this section are in the custody of the Special Media Archives Services Division, National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, Maryland 20740-6001; specific inquiries should be directed to that branch.
1.29 The Congress is specifically exempted from the provisions of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts (5 USC 552 and 552a). Access to the records of Congress in the National Archives is instead governed for House by Rule VII, 106th Congress, and for the Senate by Senate Resolution 474, 96th Cong.
1.30 House of Representatives: Rule VII, 106th Cong., provides that researchers can have access to records that have previously been made public. All other House records are unavailable to researchers except by the authorization of the Clerk of the House of Representatives. The Clerk's practice, following the guidance of the resolution, is to permit access to records more than 30 years old; records less than 30 years old are closed to public researchers. For records containing national security classified information, the Center for Legislative Archives can initiate declassification action.
1.31 Senate: Senate Resolution 474, 96th Cong., defines access to all Senate records at the National Archives except the records of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, 94th Congress (the Senate Watergate Committee). Access to the latter is covered by S. Res. 393, 96th Cong., and Senate Report 96-647.
1.32 S. Res. 474, 96th Cong., provides that records that have previously been opened remain open to researchers. Most other records are open to researchers after 20 years. Investigative records relating to individuals that contain personal data, personnel files, and records of nominations will open 50 years after their creation. Certain other records are closed by statute or Executive order of the President, such as income tax returns and national security classified information. Senate committees can change the rules of access to their own records. An example of this is access to the records of the Senate Watergate Committee which is governed by the guidelines set forth in Senate Report 96-647.
1.33 Although the Senate is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, it noted in its committee report on the S. Res. 474 that the spirit of the Act should govern decisions on access. Therefore, the Center for Legislative Archives screens modern Senate records primarily to ensure protection of individuals' privacy. The staff determines whether the records contain information that is personal, whether this is public knowledge, and whether release of the information would be an invasion of privacy. For records containing national security classified information, the Center for Legislative Archives can initiate declassification action.
1.34 Joint Committees of Congress: Although joint committees have members from both houses of Congress, in practice one House assumes responsibility for the administration of the committee's records. The rules of access that correspond to the controlling House are observed. Access to the records of the Joint Committee on Taxation is controlled by the House. Access to the records of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy and the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack is controlled by the Senate. For more information on the records of joint committees, see Chapter 23 of this guide.
1. For the report on House records, see T. R. Schellenberg to Thomas Owen, Apr. 9, 1937, Memoranda from Deputy Examiners, Accessions Division, Records of the National Archives, Record Group 64, National Archives, Washington, DC (hereafter referred to as Schellenberg, RG 64, NA). For general works on the subject, see Buford Rowland, "Recordkeeping Practices of the House of Representatives," National Archives Accessions, Jan. 1957, pp. 1-19; Richard A. Baker, "The Records of Congress: Opportunities and Obstacles in the Senate," and Anna Kasten Nelson, "Disorder in the House: The Inaccessible Record," both in The Public Historian (Summer 1980), pp. 62-72 and 73-83, respectively; Patricia Aronsson, "Congressional Records as Archival Sources," Government Publications Review, 1981, pp. 295-302. [Back to text]
2. Rowland, "Recordkeeping Practices of the House," pp. 3-4; American State Papers, Class X-Miscellaneous, 2: 245. [Back to text]
3. Thad Page, "Memorandum Re Records of the Congress," Jan. 21, 1946, Legislative Records Branch, RG 64, NA (hereafter referred to as LRB, RG 64, NA); Rowland, "Recordkeeping Practices of the House," pp. 7-8. [Back to text]
4. 31 Stat 642; Rowland, "Recordkeeping Practices of the House," pp. 11-13. [Back to text]
5. 48 Stat 1122-24; Public Law 73-432; Arthur Kimberly to the Director of Archival Service, Dec. 21, 1936, LRB, RG 64, NA; Frank McAlister, Accession Inventory no. 59, Apr. 1, 1937, LRB, RG 64, NA; S. Res. 99, 75th Cong. [Back to text]
6. Schellenberg, RG 64, NA; Administrative Secretary to the Archivist, July 5, 1938, LRB, RG 64, NA; House Report 917, 75th Cong.; the photographs are in H. Res. 222, Committee on the Library, Legislative Files (HR 75A-D22), 75th Cong., Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233, NA. [Back to text]
7. Washington Post, Nov. 19, 1944, attached to Archivist's note to Administrative Assistant, Nov. 20, 1944, LRB, RG 64, NA: Page to Alfred Elliot, Nov. 28, 1944, LRB, RG 64, NA; Page to Dirksen, Nov. 28, 1944, LRB, RG 64, NA; Dirksen to Buck, Nov. 29, 1944, LRB, RG 64, NA. [Back to text]
8. Harold Hufford to Page, Jan. 18, 1945, LRB, RG 64, NA; Buck to George Galloway, Feb. 19, 1946, LRB, RG 64, NA; Page, "Memorandum Re Records of Congress," Jan. 21, 1946, LRB, RG 64, NA. [Back to text]
9. 60 Stat 812. [Back to text]
10. 44 USC 2118 and 2107. [Back to text]
Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-245). By Charles E. Schamel, Mary Rephlo, Rodney Ross, David Kepley, Robert W. Coren, and James Gregory Bradsher. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.