Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 23 Part One: Overview

Chapter 23. Records of the Joint Committees of Congress 1789-1968 (Record Group 128)

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Records of the Joint Committees of Congress 1789-1989 (Record Group 128) from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, 1789-1988

Records of the Joint Committees of Congress, 1st-52nd Congresses (1789-1893)
Collection Number of Committees Volume
2 ft.
4 ft.
TOTAL: 173 6 ft.

Report of the Joint Committee appointed to prepare a system of rules in cases of conference, and in manner of electing chaplains, regarding addition of joint rules (page 1 of 2), 06/08/1790
Report of the Joint Committee appointed to prepare a system of rules in cases of conference, and in manner of electing chaplains, regarding addition of joint rules (page 2 of 2), 06/08/1790
Report of the Joint Committee appointed to prepare a system of rules in cases of conference, and in manner of electing chaplains, regarding addition of joint rules, June 8, 1790, from NARA's National Archives Catalog.  
23.9 Joint committees date from the earliest days of Congress. On April 9, 1789, 3 days after the United States Congress first achieved a quorum of both Houses, the House of Representatives received word that the Senate had appointed a committee to confer with a House committee "in preparing a system of rules to govern the two Houses in cases of conference, and to regulate the appointment of Chaplains" (House Journal, 1st Cong., 1st sess., pp. 11-12). The House likewise appointed a committee and, within a week, the two groups met and agreed to a report, which read in part:

    That in every case of an amendment to a bill agreed to in one House, and dissented to in the other, if either House shall request a conference, and appoint a committee for that purpose, and the other House shall also appoint a committee to confer, such committees shall, at a convenient hour, to be agreed on by their Chairmen, meet in the conference chamber, and state to each other, verbally or in writing, as either shall chuse, the reasons of their respective Houses for and against the amendment, and confer freely thereon.

Other than the Senator and two Representatives who were appointed to sit at the clerk's table to tally the votes of the electoral college, this was the first joint committee of Congress. The committee's manuscript report is among the records in RG 128 (S.C. 1).

23.10 Most of the records of early joint committees are committee reports. The reports are usually in manuscript form, though they are sometimes printed, and they often contain strikeouts or inserts. Occasionally, the report will have a notation to indicate House or Senate action on the report. In the case of the reports from the joint committee dealing with newspapers for Members of Congress and with printing arrangements, the House disagreed to the conference report on the newspaper issue and amended the report concerning printing. An extract of the House Journal detailing these actions was sent to the Senate. That document is filed with the committee reports and includes a notation showing the Senate's response (S.C. 1). Other documents appearing occasionally among the early records include resolutions to establish a particular committee and orders appointing committee members.

23.11 Many joint committees of the early Congresses were established to consider administrative or housekeeping details for Congress. Some such assignments were unique, such as that of the joint committee charged with viewing the rooms in city hall that had been offered to Congress and deciding on whether they would be needed (S.C. 1). Other assignments were recurring. There are records in several Congresses, for example, relating to committees on the business necessary to be finished prior to recess or adjournment. The reports of these committees usually consist of lists of bills by categories: those that have passed the House, those that have passed the Senate, those in committee in the House, and so forth (H.C. 11, 12; S.C. 1, 2).

23.12 Records of committees to examine votes for President and Vice President and records of committees to notify the President of his election appear regularly among the records. The records of these two types of committees tend to be quite predictable, but this is not always the case. In 1837, in response to certain allegations in the press, the committee that examined the votes was also instructed to investigate whether there was any violation of the constitutional prohibition that "no senator or representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector" (article II, section 1). The records include lists of electors, letters from the various Cabinet officials in response to committee inquiries regarding the matter, and the committee report (S.C. 24).

23.13 In 1849, the joint committee appointed to inform the Whig candidate Zachary Taylor of his election to the Presidency noted that Taylor, in response to the committee's message, alluded to the fact that the committee chairman "represented a public body, a majority of whom was opposed in political opinion, to the President Elect." He "expressed an ardent wish that he might be able, in any degree, to assuage the fierceness of party, or temper with moderation the conflicts of those who are only divided as to the means of securing the public welfare" (H.C. 30).

23.14 There are records for joint committees that had more unique mandates, including committees that focused on a particular event or issue, such as George Washington's death (S.C. 6) or the depressed state of American shipbuilding (S.C. 40, 47). Others studied a subject, such as yellow fever and cholera (S.C. 45), or investigated some problem, such as charges of wrongdoing in the government of the District of Columbia (S.C. 43). The problems revealed in the D.C. investigation led to a decision to change the form of government there. Another joint committee was appointed to draft a bill providing the framework for the government, and a few records of that committee are available (S.C. 44).

23.15 While the single type of document most likely to be among the records of any joint committee is a committee report, other types of documents occasionally appearing include letters, exhibits, minutes, and printed reference materials. There is a February 1832 letter from the venerable Chief Justice John Marshall regretfully declining an invitation to deliver an oration in honor of the centennial of Washington's birth and explaining that, though flattered by the request, his voice had "become so weak as to be almost inaudible even in a room not unusually large. In the open air it could not be heard by those nearest" to him (H.C. 22). An inventory of the furniture and other property in possession of the President in February 1801 contains the suggestion that, since the President planned to leave Washington early on the morning of March 4, someone might be designated to spend the night of March 3 at the President's House in order to receive the keys the next morning (S.C. 6). A letter of February 17, 1868, from the Director of the Bureau of Statistics provides a historical and technical review relating to the revenue collected on distilled spirits (H.C. 40).

23.16 The records of some joint committees include a wide variety of documents, as is the case with an 1874 committee dealing with the District of Columbia. The committee resulted from a memorial of certain residents of the District of Columbia, charging that unlawful contracts had been let and unlawful assessments and taxes had been levied. Some documents among the records were submitted by the counsel representing the memorialists, such as lists of persons to be subpoenaed and papers indicating what would be proved by calling individual witnesses. Other records include receipts, assessor's notices, transcripts of correspondence and other papers of the Board of Public Works, and reports on the work done on various projects in the District, as well as memorials of citizens, contractors, and the governor of the District of Columbia (S.C. 43).

Conference Committees

23.17 When bills pass the House and Senate in different forms, conference committees may be appointed to resolve the differences. Conference committees are always select and expire when their reports are acted upon by the two Houses. The members, who are known as conferees or managers, are usually drawn from the committees that considered the bill in the two Houses. Conference committees are distinctive in that the managers from each House vote as a unit while the members of other joint committees cast individual votes.2

Conference committee report on the Missouri Compromise (page 1 of 3), 03/01/1820
Conference committee report on the Missouri Compromise (page 3 of 3), 03/01/1820
First and last pages of the conference committee report on the Missouri Compromise, March 1, 1820, Records of the Joint Committee of Conference on the Missouri Bill from NARA's National Archives Catalog.  
23.18 Conference committees usually are documented only by their reports. The Senate collection includes reports of certain conference committees through 1843.3 Included are the reports of the conference committees on the acts that led to the Whiskey Rebellion (S.C. 1), banned the importation of slaves to the United States beginning in 1808 (S.C. 9), and established the Tariff of 1824 (S.C. 18). There is also the manuscript report of the conference committee that finally reached the Missouri Compromise (S.C. 16).

23.19 There is only one conference committee report among the House collection. It is the February 12, 1818, report of the managers appointed by the House regarding the military appropriations bill for 1818. The conference did not resolve the disagreement between the Houses. The report of the House members outlines in some detail the House objections to the Senate amendment regarding the pay of brevet officers, as well as the Senate's arguments and the attempts at compromise (H.C. 15).

Committees Relating to the Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-73)

23.20 The special demands placed on the Federal Government by the Civil War and its aftermath led to the establishment of several joint committees. Few unpublished records of these committees are found in RG 128, however.

23.21 The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was established on December 9, 1861, at the instigation of Senator Zachariah Chandler of Ohio and continued until May 1865. Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio served as chairman. During the committee's existence, it held 272 meetings and received testimony in Washington and at other locations, often from military officers. Though the committee met and held hearings in secrecy, the testimony and related exhibits were published in the numerous committee reports of its investigations. The records include the original manuscripts of certain postwar reports that the committee received from general officers. There are also transcripts of testimony and accounting records regarding the military administration of Alexandria, VA (S.C. 38).

23.22 On December 13, 1865, the two houses reached agreement on an amended version of a House concurrent resolution introduced by Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania to establish a joint committee of 15 members known as the Joint Committee on Reconstruction to "inquire into the condition of the States which formed the so- called Confederate States of America, and report whether they, or any of them, are entitled to be represented in either house of Congress." Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine served as chairman. The joint committee divided into four subcommittees to hear testimony and gather evidence regarding the situation in each of four groups of Southern States. In all, 144 witnesses were called to testify. The records contain part of the committee report, as well as a few petitions concerning restoration of the former Confederate states to representation in Congress. The petitions are from Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. There is also a resolution of the legislature of New York regarding this issue and advocating equality of suffrage in the District of Columbia for all adult males (H.C. 39; S.C. 39).

23.23 The Joint Committee on Reconstruction was not revived in the next Congress. The House of Representatives, however, established its own Select Committee on Reconstruction on July 3, 1867. Records of the House select committee are among RG 128 and include the resolution instructing the committee to investigate Ku Klux Klan activities. There are also letters, petitions, and a memorial from Tennessee detailing the situation in that State. They indicate that, under the new constitution, former rebels were regaining control of the government and intimidating or attacking supporters of the Union and blacks. Also among the records are the printed proceedings of a convention at Nashville on February 16, 1870, aimed at revitalizing and reorganizing the Republican Party in Tennessee.

23.24 Concern about Ku Klux Klan activities led to establishment of another Joint Committee to Inquire into the Condition of the Late Insurrectionary States on April 17, 1871. A portion of the committee's minute book, covering the period from February 10 to 19, 1872, is among the records.

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

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2 Asher C. Hinds, Hinds' Precedents of the House of Representatives of the United States (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1907), vol. IV, pp. 879-80; vol. V, p. 685.

3 Later conference reports are filled with engrossed bills. In rare instances, papers relating to conferences may be found among committee papers or bill files.

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-42) by Robert W. Coren, Mary Rephlo, David Kepley, and Charles South (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989), and 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).