Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 15

Records of the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries

Committee records described in this chapter:

History and Jurisdiction

15.1 The Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries was established on December 21, 1887, to replace the Select Committee on American Shipbuilding and Shipowning Interests. The House Rules defined its jurisdiction as those matters concerning the merchant marine. This included all matters relating to transportation by water, the Coast Guard, life-saving service, lighthouses, lightships, ocean derelicts, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Panama Canal, and fisheries. Legislation referred to the committee also included matters involving seamen (their assignments, wages, treatment, and health) and officers (their titles, conduct, and licensing); the naming, measuring, licensing, and registering of vessels; navigation and related laws; pleasure yachts; collisions at sea, as well as international arrangements to prevent them; coasting districts; maritime schools; and, taxes, fines, and penalties on vessels. The committee has also regulated shipping in the Philippines and Hawaii. As did most committees of the House, the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee created subcommittees to handle portions of its jurisdiction.

15.2 In 1919 the committee was given jurisdiction over wireless telegraphy (radio), and in 1932 its name was changed to the Committee on Merchant Marine, Radio, and Fisheries. After a dispute with the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, the jurisdiction over radio services was transferred to that committee in 1935 and the term "radio" was dropped from the name of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. Under the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 the jurisdiction of the committee was enlarged and more fully defined. Its formal statement of jurisdiction read as follows:

  • a) Merchant marine generally. b) Coast and Geodetic Survey. c) Coast Guard, including lifesaving service, lighthouses, lightships, and ocean derelicts. d) Fisheries and wildlife, including research, restoration, refuges, and conservation. e) Measures relating to the regulation of common carriers by water (except matters subject to the jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce Commission) and to the inspection of merchant marine vessels, lights and signals, lifesaving equipment, and fire protection on such vessels. f) Merchant marine officers and seamen. g) Navigation and the laws relating thereto, including pilotage. h) Panama Canal and the maintenance and operation of the Panama Canal, including the administration, sanitation, and government of the Canal Zone; and interoceanic canals generally. i) Registering and licensing of vessels and small boats. j) Rules and international arrangements to prevent collisions at sea. k) United States Coast Guard and Merchant Marine Academies.1

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Records of the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, 50th-79th Congresses (1887-1946)

Record Type Volume Congresses (Dates)
Minute Books 9 vols. 51st-59th (1889-1907), 69th (1925-27), 75th-78th (1937-44)
Docket Books 10 vols. 51st-60th (1889-1909)
Petitions and Memorials    9 ft. 51st-65th (1889-1919), 67th-75th (1921-38), 79th (1945-46)
Committee Papers 58 ft. 50th-66th (1887-1921), 68th-79th (1923-46)
Bill Files 67 ft. 58th-60th (1903-09), 62d-65th (1911-19), 67th-71st (1921-31), 73d-79th (1931-46)
TOTAL: 134 ft. and 19 vols. (1 ft.)    

15.3 The minutes for 1889-1907 were kept in bound minute books; those after 1925 were handwritten or typed on loose-leaf paper and filed along with the committee papers. The minutes for this committee are generally spare, recording only the members of the committee present at meetings and the bill numbers and subjects of legislation discussed. Occasionally, however, the minutes provide detailed insight into the legislative decision-making process. The March 8, 1900, markup session on H.R. 64, the Payne bill, to promote commerce and increase foreign trade for the national defense, extends over 16 pages in the minute book for the 56th Congress.

15.4 Petitions and memorials have been preserved from almost every Congress since the establishment of the committee. Although there are no petition and memorial files as such for the 76th through 78th Congresses, those petitions and memorials that were referred to the committee during that period may be found in the bill files under the legislation to which they relate.

15.5 Petitions and memorials concerning legislation involving the living and working conditions of merchant sailors are among the committee's records from its beginning in the 19th century through the end of the World War II. Although the specific thrust of the legislation changed over time, the competing forces--seamen and other working class groups versus merchants and shipowners--remained the same. Congressman James G. Maguire, for example, introduced a number of bills during the 53d and 54th Congresses (1893-97) that provided protection for seamen against oppressive treatment and harsh living and working conditions. Petitions from entrepreneurs such as "The 37 largest shipowners, exporters, and importers of Massachusetts" protested the passage of the "Maguire bills" while the Cigarmakers Union of America, the Typographical Union, and the Ancient Order of Loyal Americans urged the committee to report the bills favorably (53A-H19.2, 54A-H20.1). "Compliment laws," legislation intended to provide for safe working conditions, were passed to "prevent the undermanning and unskilled manning of American vessels," 1907-11 (60A-H22.3, 61A-H21.5). Other "seamen's bills" were intended to protect merchant seamen from arrest and imprisonment for desertion (63A-H18.1).

15.6 Seamen's bills and petitions and memorials urging their support or defeat are in the records for almost every Congress. The high point of public concern for seamen's rights appears to have occurred at the end of World War II when hundreds of petitions urged support for H.R. 2346 or H.R. 2180, the Merchant Seaman's Bill of Rights. In 1945 Mrs. Harriet Keech expressed the sentiments of many who favored passage of the "Bill" when she wrote: "Because of the vital contribution made by our sons, husbands, and brothers in the war, it is correct that they be given the same consideration that the men of the armed forces received under the G.I. Bill of Rights." Interested seamen such as the crew of the S.S. Kenyon L. Butterfield, and members of the National Maritime Union also urged support for the bills (79A-H12, 3 ft.).

15.7 The promotion of legislation intended either to enlarge the merchant marine or to restore it to its former status is also a continuing subject. Petitioners sought support for legislation providing subsidies and other methods for building the merchant marine (54A- H20.1, 55A-H15.1, 56A-H15.2, 60A-H22.2, 61A-H21.3, 63A-H18.1, 64A-H15.1 and more). Some petitioners suggested special needs to be met by an improved merchant marine. In 1890, for example the Philadelphia Board of Trade urged Congress to help establish a shipping line to West Africa in order to "promote American commerce, and the extension of freedom, humanity, civilization, and Christianity in one of the richest marts and most populous portions of the world" (51A-H13.3).

15.8 Records relating to the registry of ships built in the United State or of foreign built ships that were cast ashore by storms and abandoned by their owners appear among the petition and memorial files of most Congresses during the early years of the committee, 1893- 1905 (53A-H19.1, 58A-H15.2, ). Other records relating to the registry of ships are filed with the committee papers, such as the records relating to the registration of the S.S. Earnwell, the S.S. Menemsha, the S.S. Catania, and the Bark Villa (55A-F22.3). Some of the records relating to registry of vessels contain extensive documentation.

15.9 Other subjects of petitions and memorials included support for a load-line bill which was intended to increase safety in the Great Lakes by regulating the overloading of ships (51A-H13.1); establishment of a home for aged seamen (52A-H14.1); establishment of lobster hatcheries in Maine and New Hampshire (56A-H15.1); and the employment of surfmen by the Lifesaving Service (56A-H15.3),

15.10 Around 1890 the committee received large numbers of petitions from the boards of trade of various cities protesting passage of legislation that would allow the use of purse seines when fishing for mackerel and menhaden in any waters without reference to the applicable state regulations (52A-H14.2). A few years later (1903-5) the Master Mariner's Association of Glouchester, MA and a number of similar organizations petitioned Congress to pass legislation to protect food fish from the sharks and dogfish that had proliferated off the New England shore (58A-H15.4).

15.11 Various aspects of radio communications were the subjects of petitions both before and after radio was formally part of jurisdiction of the committee. During the late 1920's petitioners protested code interference created by the use of "spark-type" transmitters used by a commercial New York business, and suggested that the use of vacuum tubes would solve the problem (69A-H11.2). In 1930 dozens of petitioners protested the Federal Radio Commission's decision to close radio station KWKH in Shreveport, LA, because of the use of certain language (71A-H11.2), while others protested the Commission's decision to reduce the power of station WFLA-WSUN to prevent it from serving the Tampa, Florida area (72A-H10.2). Other petitions concerned the issuance of radio broadcast licenses to educational, religious, agricultural, labor, and other non-profit organizations (73A-H13.1).

15.12 The committee papers (58 ft.) contain a wide variety of unpublished documentation. They average 1-6 inches per Congress before 1935 and from 2 to 8 feet per Congress between 1935 and 1947. More than half of the total volume of committee papers consists of material collected during the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee's investigation of that part of the national defense program that was in the jurisdiction of the committee (79A-F25 and 79A-F119, 30 ft.). For additional information see below.

15.13 Records relating to the American registration of salvaged foreign vessels appear throughout the pre-World War II files. Although these records are not filed as records of the Subcommittee on Registry, they document much of the work of that group (see 51A-F22.2, 55A-F22.2). The registry records document the salvage and repair of ships that had run aground and had been abandoned by their owners. They often contain a wide variety of financial, legal, and political documentation, including correspondence from all interested parties and the lawyers and insurance companies that represented them; documents from underwriters--in many cases Lloyd's Register of British and Foreign Shipping; estimates of damages and specifications of repair costs; contracts; affidavits; cargo manifests; and correspondence from other Government bodies including other congressional committees and port authorities. These records may be filed under the name of the ship or under the number of the related legislation. For example, the records relating to H.R. 1713, 54th Cong., a bill providing for the registry of a British ship formerly named Nerito, which was wrecked and abandoned on Sabale Island and later renamed Miami, are filed under the new name, Miami (54A-F25.3).

15.14 Other records in the committee papers relate to legislation regulating the overloading of vessels on the Great Lakes (51A-F22.2), legislation affecting the legal length and width of ship-tows in inland waters and New York Harbor (56A-F22.5); ship subsidies (56A- F22.4, 57A-F22.2), transcripts of executive markup sessions on the Shipping Board Act of 1916 (64A-F23.1) and the Merchant Marine Act of 1935 (74A-F25.3); and original exhibits from the 1932 shipping trust investigation (63A-F25.1, 62A-D15). Included also are letters from fishermen in 1892 defending themselves against charges that they were guilty of catching food fish along with the menhaden, a fish used for oil or fertilizer production (52A-F27.2).

15.15 Among the committee papers after 1937 are the committee's general correspondence files. The correspondence file for each Congress is arranged by subject, and ranges in size from 1 linear foot to over 5 feet. The 1937-38 correspondence file, for example, contains folders on the following subjects: Alaskan salmon fisheries, bankruptcy of the Munson SS line, a Coast Guard modernization program, Federal Ship Mortgage Insurance, various aspects of fisheries, lobbying regulations, the Panama Canal, shipbuilding, safety at sea, a sardine fishing investigation, tramp shipping, and other topics (75A-F25.3, 15 in.).

15.16 Records from the committee's multi-year investigation of the progress of the national defense program in areas relating to the committee's jurisdiction consist of unpublished investigative files, correspondence, hearing transcripts, and exhibit material submitted to support testimony. Various aspects of the investigation were referred to the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee's subcommittees. The records are arranged by subcommittee and thereunder by the industry or activity being investigated (79A- F119).

15.17 The bill files are relatively thin before the 75th Congress (1935), averaging 6 inches per Congress except for the 1911-13 records (62A-D15) which consist of over 20 feet of material. The unusually large volume of material for the 62d Congress consists almost entirely of records relating to H.Res. 587, a resolution that authorized the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee to investigate the methods and practices of foreign and domestic shipping lines in coastal and inland commerce, and their connections with other shipping lines, railroads, and common carriers. The records consist almost entirely of "Schedules of Inquiry," questionnaires that the committee distributed to the domestic shipping lines for response (62A- D15).

15.18 After 1937 the bill files are much more complete than before that date. The files average 8 feet per Congress and contain folders on most of the legislation referred to the committee. During part of this period the petitions and memorials pertaining to specific legislation are filed with the bill to which they relate. Other types of documents found in the bill files include correspondence with executive agencies, other organizations and individuals; copies of the bill or resolution, hearings and reports; and other documents related to the legislation.

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Records of the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, 80th-90th Congresses (1947-1968)

Record Type Volume   Congresses (Dates)
Minutes 3 ft. 81st-90th (1949-68)
Docket Books 10 vols. 51st-60th (1889-1909)
Petitions and Memorials   2 ft. 80th (1947-48), 82d-90th (1951-68)
Committee Papers 61 ft. 80th-90th (1947-68)
Bill Files 155 ft. 80th-90th (1947-68)
TOTAL: 221 ft.  

15.19 The minutes of full committee and subcommittee meetings are filed together in chronological order in loose-leaf notebooks. They contain accounts of open and executive session meetings. In some cases the minutes also contain roll-call vote slips.

15.20 Separate petition and memorial files exist for most of this period, but during the 88th through 90th Congresses (1963-68) petitions and memorials are filed together with executive communications. In some cases petitions and memorials relating to specific pieces of legislation are filed in the bill file for the legislation instead of in the petition and memorial series. The documents cover a wide range of subjects relating to the merchant marine.

15.21 The living and working conditions of seamen continued to be a subject of memorials, but it was no longer the major concern that it had been. The National Maritime Union and other seamen's organizations protested post-war legislation that would deport certain alien seamen and transfer the title of certain American ships to foreign flags (80A-H9.1); the seamen's organizations reasoned that the alien seamen had supported the U.S. war effort and deserved better treatment than deportation, and that the transfer of ships to foreign flags would take work away from our native seamen. The American Legion, Connecticut Department, submitted a memorial in 1960 calling for the improvement of the safety conditions at sea by increasing the appropriations for the Coast Guard Academy (86A-H10.1).

15.22 State legislatures, local governments, and a wide variety of business, labor and environmental organizations petitioned Congress to pass legislation to provide economic benefits. The Township of Glouchester, NJ, passed a resolution in 1959 asking for legislation allocating funds to cover the construction of a superliner ship at the neighboring New York Shipbuilding Corporation--a project that would provide 3 years work for 3,500 men and would greatly benefit the economy of the Delaware Valley area (86A-H10.1). The Roosevelt Medal Associates and Senior Citizens of Burlingame, CA, sent a complex document—a "memo with brief and argument"--that supported passage of legislation to extend benefits to retirees under the Panama Canal Construction Service Annuity Act of 1944 (87A-H9.1).

15.23 The committee received large numbers of petitions and memorials concerning the conservation, preservation, and exploitation of wildlife, and the ocean fisheries. Many of these were in the form of resolutions passed by State legislatures. The legislature of the State of California sent a memorial favoring the construction of devices to improve feeding and spawning conditions for anadromous fish, and the legislature of Alaska supported S. 627, a bill that provided for research and development projects to study the causes of the salmon failure in Bristol Bay in 1963 (88 MMF 3). The Secretary of the Hopi Tribe at Oraibi, AZ, prayed in 1962 that provisions be made to allow the tribe, in its traditional territories, to continue to take eagles for use in sacred feather offerings, even though legislation to protect the eagles had been proposed (87A-H9.1). The House of Representatives of Idaho asked that the Minidoka Wildlife Refuge be turned over to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game for management (86A-H10.1).

15.24 The committee papers for each Congress contain the executive communications that were referred to the committee, minutes of committee and subcommittee meetings, copies of the legislative calendar, copies of printed hearings, and, in some cases, transcripts of executive session meetings.

15.25 The executive communications include reports from various agencies such as the annual reports of the U.S. Maritime Commission, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Pacific Marine Fisheries Commission (88 MMF 3). The committee received annual and special reports from the Secretary of Commerce on war-risk insurance under the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, and other subjects such as shipbuilding in the coastal districts of the United States. The Treasury Department submitted annual and special reports on subjects such as recreational boating in the United States, and the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, submitted reports such as Trident, a long range fishery forecast.

15.26 Other documents that are filed as executive communications include drafts of proposed legislation. Examples are: An August 1964 proposal for "A bill to improve the aids to navigation services of the Coast Guard" received from the Secretary of the Treasury; "A bill to aid in the administration of the Pribilof Islands in Alaska" proposed by the Secretary of the Interior; and "A bill to amend the Canal Zone Code to empower the Panama Canal Company and Canal Zone to make interest-bearing loans... on low cost homes" submitted by the Governor of the Panama Canal Zone (88A-MMF 3).

15.27 Transcripts of open session and executive session meetings of the committee are contained in the records of each Congress. Many of these transcripts were never published. The records of the 88th Congress (1963-64), for example, contain unpublished transcripts of hearings before the Subcommittee on the Panama Canal, hearings on deep-sea diving capabilities before the Subcommittee on Oceanography, and full committee hearings on the 1964 Coast Guard Authorization Act. Earlier records include transcripts of a hearing on the Mexican seizure of five American shrimp boats in 1950 (81A-F11.1). In 1953 a special subcommittee held numerous executive sessions as well as open hearings concerning salvage operations on the Cornhusker Mariner (83A-F12.1), while a Special West Coast Subcommittee investigated shipbuilding activities in Los Angeles (83A-F12.2), and the standing Subcommittee on the Panama Canal studied the organization of the Canal Zone Government and the Panama Canal Company (83A-F12.3).

15.28 The files of the special subcommittee investigation of an explosion in South Amboy, New Jersey on May 19, 1950, contain voluminous transcripts, exhibits, correspondence, and other documents (81A-F11.2, 15 in.).

15.29 Bill files comprise almost three-quarters of the records of this committee during the post-World War II years. They contain documentation on most of the legislation that passed through the committee. The bill files for the 84th Congress, 1955-56 (84A-D12, 15 ft.) will serve as an example of the kinds of records available in this series. They contain a folder on each bill and resolution that was referred to the committee. The file for H.R. 5306, a bill to protect and preserve the national wildlife refuges, contains 6 inches of material, and is representative of the larger files in this series. It contains printed copies of the bill as it was introduced and copies of proposed amendments; copies of committee's report on the bill, and the printed transcript of hearings held by the committee; pages torn from the Congressional Record in which the legislation was discussed in the House or Senate; press releases; newspaper clippings; correspondence between the committee staff and private citizens and organizations, and other Government officials in Congress, the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of the Budget, and various State agencies; and trade bulletins and newsletters from interest groups such as the Wildlife Management Institute, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Outdoor Writer's Association of America, Inc.

15.30 The list of bills and resolutions referred to the committee and published in the Committee Calendar can serve as an index to the bill files of this committee because, in most cases, there is a folder for each piece of legislation referred.

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Records of the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, 80th-90th Congresses (1969-1986)

15.31 The Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee falls in the middle range of House committees in terms of the volume of unpublished records preserved. The records for most Congresses contain bill files, executive communications, transcripts of executive session hearings, copies of printed hearings, minutes, and administrative files including vouchers. The committee papers also usually contain substantial records from the minority staff and several collections of subcommittee records. Records of the 96th Congress, for example, contain a collection of files of the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife Conservation, and the Environment (17 ft.), the Subcommittee on the Panama Canal (8 ft.), and minority files (24 ft.).

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1 U.S. Congress, House, Constitution, Jefferson's Manual, and Rules of the House of Representatives of the United States, Ninetieth Congress, H.Doc. 529, 89th Cong., 2d sess., 1967, p. 348.

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.

This Web version is updated from time to time to include records processed since 1989.

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