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The Epic Battle Over Congressional Seating

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

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. 

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environment
Sip on This: The Queen Has Banned Plastic Straws at Buckingham Palace
Daniel Berehulak, Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak, Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II is a big fan of naturalist David Attenborough, and it’s making an impact on royal dining. After working with the iconic Planet Earth narrator (and British knight) on an upcoming conservation film, the monarch felt inspired to take action close to home, banning plastics at royal palaces, Fast Company and The Telegraph report.

At Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and Scotland’s Palace of Holyroodhouse, staff will now have to eschew plastic straws and plates, ditching disposable plastic dishware for china, glass, and recyclable paper. The ban will slowly rid public areas of plastic, too. In the palaces’ cafes, all takeout containers will be replaced with compostable or biodegradable alternatives, and plastic straws will slowly be phased out.

While plastic water bottles and bags often get more attention in anti-pollution campaigns, plastic straws are terrible for the environment, and the Queen isn’t the only one taking notice. Plastic straws are one of the most prevalent types of litter, and because of their size, they can’t be recycled. Scotland’s government banned them in parliament in January 2018 and hopes to ban them throughout the country by 2020. Companies like Pret a Manger are already trying to take action against straw waste, introducing paper straws instead.

The problem isn’t limited to the UK—in the U.S., Americans throw away an estimated 500 million straws per day (that’s between one and two per person). In California, several cities have mandated that restaurants provide plastic straws only if customers specifically ask for one, and the legislation may soon spread to the rest of the state. Beginning in July 2018, Seattle restaurants will have to offer compostable or recyclable straws instead of plastic ones as part of a new ban.

Time to make like the Queen and start a BYO-straw movement. Might we suggest you try a reusable silicone or stainless steel option?

[h/t Fast Company]

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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