Legislative Branch

Guide to Senate Records: Chapter 18

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Chapter 18. Records of Senate Select Committees, 1789-1988

Records of Senate Select and Special Committees, 1789-1988 from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States

Committee records discussed in this chapter:
Records of Senate Select Committees, 1789-1988 (2,984 ft.)

18.1 The Senate of the United States has always relied on committees as the best means to accomplish its work in an orderly, efficient, and expeditious manner. The first session of the Senate commenced on Monday, April 6, 1789, and the next day the Senate appointed its first two committees. The committee system is now thoroughly ingrained in Senate procedure, with the Senate rules establishing a full range of standing committees and assigning jurisdiction of all legislative issues among them.

18.2 Though committees have been an important part of the Senate from the beginning, the committee system itself has grown and evolved over the years. During the first few Congresses, there were no Senate standing committees, that is, permanent committees established to consider matters regarding a particular subject area. Instead, select committees, created to perform a specific function and expiring upon completion of that task, performed the overwhelming majority of the committee work for the Senate in the earliest Congresses. Though standing committees account for most committee activity today, select committees still have a place in the modern Senate. This chapter examines the records of select committees among the Records of the United States Senate, Record Group 46. These records not only contain information about the individual committees to which they pertain, but, taken as a whole, they reveal the varied and changing roles that select committees have played in Senate history.

18.3 Because of the evolution of select committees and of their recordkeeping practices, the records of 18th-century select committees bear little resemblance to their 20th-century counterparts. For this reason, the chapter is divided into six chronological sections. The breaks between sections reflect changes in the committee structure of the Senate or, in one instance, in the records arrangement. The first section covers records of the period from 1789 to 1815 when the Senate had no standing committees to deal with legislative issues. The second section discusses records dating from 1815 to 1847. The break occurs because committee reports after 1847 are no longer filed by committee. The third section runs from 1847 to 1921, ending in the year that a major realignment of the Senate's committee structure went into effect. The fourth section covers the period from 1921 to 1946, the year of the seminal Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. The fifth section discusses the select committee records from 1947 to 1968, and the final section briefly describes records from 1969 until the original publication of this guide in 1989.

18.4 The six sections deal with the records in two different ways. The first three sections of the chapter consider the records of select committees during the time period as a whole, while the next two sections provide separate discussion of the records of each select committee. This is chiefly a reflection of the enormous expansion in the quantity of records pertaining to each committee after 1920. The last section lists those committee records at the National Archives with brief descriptions of the records of special interest.

18.5 The titles of some select committees are not capitalized. This follows the guidance of the Senate Journal and reflects the fluid manner in which select committees were created, served their function, and went out of existence in earlier years. Many committees were known by the date they were created or by a petition or other document that had been referred to them. In a number of instances, the Journal does not consistently refer to an individual committee by the same title.

18.6 Some 20th-century select committees are entitled special committees. However, these do not differ in any substantive way from the others.

18.7 Many select committees grew out of, or were absorbed by, standing committees. In addition, some select committees became standing committees. These facts should not be overlooked by the researcher wishing to do a complete search of the records of a particular subject.

18.8 For the records of some select committees, a finding aid is available. These finding aids are mentioned in the chapter and are listed in Appendix G. For guidance on other aids to research, consult An Introduction to Research in the Records of Congress, paying particular attention to the discussion of American State Papers, the Congressional Serial Set, Senate Journal, and Congressional Record and its predecessors. Certain records of select committees are included in National Archives microfilm publications. Consult Appendix H for information on these publications.

18.9 Finally, National Archives holdings do not include records for all of the select committees created by the Senate during any of the six time periods. In fact, less than half of all the select committees of the 18th and 19th centuries are represented.

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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.