During the State of the Union a few weeks ago, I noticed that the members of Congress were sitting on rows of theater-style seating in the House Chamber. In a lot of period movies though, pre-20th century, we see them seated at individual desks. This isn’t just movies taking creative liberties—the House really did have desks at one point, and the change to their modern seating arrangements took 84 years of arguing!
The House Chamber was originally outfitted with an assigned desk for each representative, which provided seating for House sessions and also served as their personal office space. As some Congressmen saw it, though, the desk’s dual functions sometimes got muddied. Some representatives were accused of carrying on all sorts of business and conversation while the House was in session, making too much noise and wasting everyone’s time.
As far back as 1829, the Clerk of the House of Representatives records representatives complaining about the seating situation. That January, Ichabod Bartlett of New Hampshire called the desks a “cause of confusion detrimental to the public business,” but other representatives defended them as a convenience. In 1841, the Clerk noted another complaint and, the following year, the first official attempt to have them removed. William Cost Johnson of Maryland brought a proposition to remove the desks before the House, but it was defeated by a vote of 93 to 74. Five years later, another proposal went nowhere.
In 1859, a third proposal succeeded—103 to 73—and the desks were set to be removed and replaced with benches at the start of the next year. The victory was short lived. With the new seating arrangement, the New York Herald reported, “the members were thus in closer contact and were more easily impelled by the prevailing passion.”
“As a consequence there was much shaking of fists under noses, much hurling threats of personal violence and much assuming of insulting and defiant attitudes.”
After just 12 weeks, a special seating committee switched the seating back to desks and chairs.
W. Porcher Miles of South Carolina wrote the minority report for the committee and said the debate over seating was “one of the comfort and convenience of the Members on the one side and the intelligent and expeditious dispatch of the business of the country on the other.”
The main argument for keeping the desks, he said, was also the strongest reason for getting rid of them: the convenient space it gave representatives for writing letters and having conversations. “The first duty of the Representative was to attend the business going on the House,” he wrote, and the desks were clearly getting in the way of that, with “much time lost in repetitions and misunderstandings.”
The setback didn’t stop the desks’ critics, and more proposals to get rid of them came in 1878, 1883, 1899, and 1901. All of them were rejected.
In 1908, the Cannon House Office Building was completed, providing desks and plenty of office space for members of the House. During the same period, the number of representatives was increasing based on population growth in the country and it was deemed “a physical impossibility to accommodate the larger membership under present conditions.” Another measure to ditch the desks was introduced in 1913, and the seats were finally switched over permanently after almost a century of debate. And they say the wheels of government grind slowly.