Chapter 1: The Committee is Created: 1825-1857
The first permanent Senate committees were established in the 14th Congress of 1816, during the last year of President James Madison's second term. Prior to 1816, the Senate had not considered it necessary to create permanent or standing committees to consider legislative matters. In the opinion of many, the smaller size of the Senate in those days made it unnecessary to create permanent working groups. Senators met as needed to discuss issues at their desks in the Senate chamber. In addition, some Members believed the Constitution did not empower the Senate to create standing committees. Work was often done as a "Committee of the Whole" Senate. As a result, prior to 1816, Senators created only select, or temporary, committees to consider legislation. These panels, limited in their assigned tasks, expired when the project was completed. (George Lee Robinson, "The Development of the Senate Committee System," Ph.D. Dissertation, New York University, 1955, p. 21.)
By 1816, the model of using select committees or the whole Senate to consider pending business had become unworkable. The nation was experiencing rapid growth and federal laws were growing in number and complexity. Legislators realized that the tasks they faced could not be solved within the limited time allotted to a select committee or even a single Congress. A growing need for permanent legislative committees devoting continuing attention to important legislative matters, such as appropriating funds, became apparent. Consequently, on December 10, 1816, the Senate established 11 standing legislative committees, adding a twelfth committee one week later on December 18. (Walter Kravitz, "Evolution of the Senate's Committee System" In: "Changing Congress: The Committee System," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol., 411, January 1974, p. 28.)
In the first two decades of the 19th century, several new frontier States were added to the Union including Alabama, Maine and Missouri. These and other newly admitted States caused the Senate to focus greater attention on agricultural issues, as the economies in these States were primarily dependent upon agriculture. This effect became apparent sooner in the House of Representatives, which considered a request for a "Society of Agriculture," in 1797. The House created a standing Committee on Agriculture in 1820.
Then, on December 9, 1825, the Senate, by a vote of 22-14, approved a resolution creating a standing Committee on Agriculture. (Register of Debates in Congress, December 9, 1825, p. 5) This was the first new standing Committee created after the establishment of the first 12 committees in 1816. The debate surrounding its creation reveals the all-encompassing but poorly understood role of agriculture in 19th century America.
The Committee on Agriculture was created during debate on dividing the Committee on Commerce and Manufactures. By the mid-1820s, one of the original standing committees created in 1816, the Committee on Commerce and Manufactures, became mired in controversy over the issue of tariffs. American businesses and manufacturing interests were often at odds, as were committee members, leading to frequent stalemates over important issues. With a total population of over nine million, most of whom were connected to agriculture, the country was slowly recovering from the Panic of 1819-22. In addition, the country was feeling the impact of the high Tariff of 1816, which included protections for wool, sugar, hemp and flax. (U.S. Department of Agriculture Website, www.usda.gov/history of American agriculture) By 1825, some Members felt the committee should be divided into separate Committees on Commerce and Manufactures to avoid continuing conflict over tariff policy inherent in the existing Committee. On December 7, 1825, Senator Mahlon Dickerson of New Jersey submitted a resolution equally dividing the two committees.
During the debate on Senator Dickerson's resolution, it occurred to Senator William Findlay, a Republican from Pennsylvania, that he could solve another problem he faced. Rising during the debate, Senator Findlay pointed out that while commerce and manufacturing were two equal components of the American economy, like a three-legged stool, there was one other important segment being left out. He proposed an amendment to the measure before the Senate to create a Committee on Agriculture in addition to separate committees on Commerce and Manufactures. Asking what sort of issues would be referred to such a committee, several Senators rose to debate the amendment. Some even wondered if the Senate had jurisdiction to govern agriculture outside the ten square miles of the District of Columbia, much less for the nation as a whole.
Senator Robert Hayne of South Carolina, though opposed to Dickerson's resolution separating the Committee on Commerce and Manufactures, considered the addition of an Agriculture Committee a wise action. Such a committee, he claimed, would combine the major economic interests of the country in a single place and allow for coordinated economic policies. Senator John Rowan of Kentucky opposed including agriculture among standing committees because he felt that agriculture was outside "the scope of the powers" of the Senate.
Senator John Holmes of Maine responded that before a Committee on Agriculture could be established, some notion of its duties should be outlined. He for one, was uncertain that such a committee would have sufficient jurisdiction to justify its creation. He contended that most matters under the jurisdiction of such a panel could be handled within the existing committee system. The issue was not one of the importance of agriculture, he claimed, but of the manner in which the Senate considered the subject. (Register of Debates, December 7, 1825, pp. 2-4)
These concerns caused Senator Findlay's amendment to fail on a voice vote. Consequently, on the Senate's next day of session, December 9, Senator Findlay submitted a resolution providing for the creation of a standing Committee on Agriculture. He argued that agriculture was one of "three great branches of domestic industry" along with commerce and manufacturing. All three, he claimed, were equally entitled to the care and protection of the Government. He contended further that agricultural interests were distinct and not always best served when included with those of commerce. Senator Findlay opined that certain laws might operate to the benefit of commerce and depress agriculture. (Register of Debates, December 9, 1825)
Responding to concerns about the unique functions of an Agriculture Committee, Senator Levi Woodbury of New Hampshire, a supporter of the resolution, laid out its justification:
"[I] would suggest, that all questions of direct taxes on land; all internal duties and excises; and all imposts, no less than questions of foreign and internal commerce, have a powerful, and, often, an immediate influence on the interests of agriculture. And, in a territory like ours, of between two and three millions of square miles; with two-thirds of its population exclusively engaged in agriculture; with annual exports from agriculture of about forty millions; and with, probably, fifteen millions of our duties paid, in the end, by the tillers of the soil, who consume, and not by the merchants, who import-it is impossible not to find subjects peculiarly proper, in some stage of their progress through this House, to be referred to such a committee." (Register of Debates, December 9, 1825, p. 6.)
Agriculture in the early 19th century was certainly intertwined with other great issues of commerce and the economy. Agricultural trade occupied an important segment of the American economy from the earliest colonial years.(U.S. Senate, The United States Senate: 1787-1801, Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1961, p. 316). In fact, one reason for the colonization of the New World by Europeans had been to obtain a fresh source of raw materials and agricultural products, while developing new markets for manufactured goods. Trade was integral to the growth of the American colonies and, as early as the 1770s, colonists were debating free versus protectionist trade policies.
Many other issues--including federal lands policy, monetary affairs, internal improvements such as canals (the Erie Canal had just opened), and roads to transport farm goods--touched both directly and indirectly on the Nation's agricultural interests. Though agriculture's place in the economy was not in dispute, in 1825 its potential place in the Senate's standing committee system was a matter of considerable debate.
Senator Findlay replied to those gathered to hear the debate on December 7, 1825, that a new Agriculture Committee could have substantial jurisdiction over issues that naturally involved agriculture. And when pressed for what specific bills might be referred to the new committee, Senator Findlay had a ready example. He suggested that perhaps a duty on foreign spirits might arise and need attention. In a new nation lacking in infrastructure, farmers often converted their wheat or corn crop to whiskey, which allowed them to add value to their product while at the same time reducing the size and weight problems associated with moving crops to market.
Late on Friday, December 9, 1825, the Senate, on a vote of 22 to 14, voted to create the three new committees and the Committee on Agriculture was born. It was not until six weeks later that Senator Findlay revealed his initial motive for creating the committee. Senator Findlay's colleague, William Marks, the junior Senator from Pennsylvania, introduced a petition from Pennsylvania farmers asking that the Congress place a duty on imports of alcoholic spirits. (A Report by Senator William Findlay of Pennsylvania to Prohibit the Importation of Foreign Spirits, 19th Congress, 1st Session, Report Number 65, March 21, 1826, Microfiche in Library of the Senate, U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.) When it was suggested that the petition affected revenue to the Treasury, a request was made that the matter be referred to the Finance Committee. At that point, Senator Findlay, now the first Chairman of the new Agriculture Committee, rose to explain that since the matter was agricultural in nature, his new committee should consider the petition. The petition, after some debate, was referred to his committee. Thus, by creating a Committee on Agriculture, Senator Findlay took control of an issue important to his Pennsylvania farm constituents.
During that first session of the 19th Congress, which lasted from December 5, 1825 to May 22, 1826, a total of two bills were referred to the new Agriculture committee. The first was the spirits import duty bill discussed above. The second bill also concerned an agricultural trade issue; repeal of the duty on imported salt, used by farmers to dry and preserve meat and tan hides. (A Report by Senator Levi Woodbury of New Hampshire to Provide for the Repeal of the Import Duties on Salt, 19th Congress, 1st Session, Report Number 61, March 17, 1826, Microfiche in Library of the Senate, U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.) While farmers had earlier asked that the duty on alcoholic spirits be raised to reduce imports, they were now asking that the import duty on salt be reduced to increase supplies. This time the Finance Committee was not so easily prevented from exercising its jurisdiction. When the Agriculture Committee reported the salt bill to the floor there was an extended debate, with amendments, that eventually referred the issue to the Finance Committee. When the Finance Committee finally reported the bill to the Chamber, it was too late in the session to debate and was tabled.
The Agriculture Committee joined the four committees that had been created prior to 1816 that mostly served as housekeeping committees such as the Joint Committee on Enrolled Bills, or the Joint Committee on the Library. (Robert C. Byrd, The Senate 1789-1989, Addresses on the History of the United States Senate, Volume II, 1991, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., p. 216.) And it joined the eleven standing committees created in 1816, including Foreign Relations, Ways and Means (later Finance), Commerce and Manufactures, Military Affairs, Militia, Naval Affairs, Public Lands, Claims, Judiciary, Post Office and Roads, and Pensions. (Robert C. Byrd, The Senate 1789-1989, Addresses on the History of the United States Senate, Volume II, 1991, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. pp. 217-218.) Before 1816, Senators served on literally dozens of ad hoc committees.
In that first Agriculture Committee of five, four others served with Senator Findlay. They included Senator Edward Lloyd of Maryland, Senator John Branch of North Carolina, Senator Levi Woodbury of New Hampshire, and Senator Charles D. Bouligny of Louisiana. Aside from Senator Bouligny, the Committee's Senators represented the eastern seaboard of the new nation. And, in an age before the popular election of Senators, four of the five members had served as state governors before coming to the Senate.
Despite the potential unlimited breadth of the Committee's jurisdiction, the Agriculture Committee, in its first four decades, developed a limited legislative agenda. Many of the agricultural issues of the early to mid-19th century centered on tariffs, trade, the disposition of public lands, and internal improvements as Senator Woodbury had earlier described. However, as Senator Holmes had argued, these were matters handled primarily by other committees. The interest in the Agriculture Committee was not unacknowledged by the Senate, however. During a highly charged debate on tariffs in 1832, a motion was made to refer the entire question to the Committee on Agriculture, but that proposal was defeated by a vote of 18-22. (Congressional Globe, March 19, 1832, p. 591.) Congress' unwillingness to establish a direct federal role in agriculture during these years substantially reduced the role for an active Senate Committee on Agriculture.
As is often the case, however, it was money that got the ball rolling. One of the earliest legislative Acts affecting agriculture was an appropriation, in 1839, of $1,000 for the Patent Office to distribute seeds, conduct agricultural investigations, and collect agricultural statistics. (Congressional Globe, Report of the Secretary of the Interior, 31st Congress, 1st Session, Appendix, December 3, 1849, p. 21.) The appropriation set up an Agricultural Division in the Patent Office. However, because the program was administered by the Patent Office, it was not considered within the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Committee. Subsequent appropriations were intermittent, but activity within the Executive Branch continued. In one year alone, over 30,000 seed packets were distributed. In addition, agricultural statistics were first gathered with the 1840 Census, and published in 1842. After 1842, Congress made annual appropriations for the Patent Office to use for agricultural purposes. (Wayne D. Rasmussen, et al, Century of Service, the First 100 Years of the United States Department of Agriculture, USDA, Washington, D.C., 1963, pp.5-7.)
Matters that were considered by the Agriculture Committee during this period include petitions requesting government encouragement of domestic cultivation of imported commodities (silk and tropical products, for example), resolutions for the creation of national agricultural schools and societies, measures recommending price relief on certain imported goods, and in 1850, a resolution for the creation of an Agriculture Bureau within the Department of the Interior. This latter measure, reported favorably by the Committee but never considered by the Senate, reflected growing sentiment in the Senate for an expanded Government role in support of agriculture.
Meanwhile the Committee limped on. Senator Philip Allen of Rhode Island, Chairman of the Committee, in March 1854, moved that the Senate appoint a clerk for the Agriculture Committee. The motion was approved but a motion to reconsider the vote, offered by Senator John Weller of California, prompted debate on the Committee's need for a clerk. Senator Weller questioned the necessity of appointing a clerk for a committee that met "two or three times during a session of Congress." Senator Allen defended his proposition as being only temporary, for the assistance of the Committee only in the business before it, and not for the entire session. Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, a Committee Member, expressed his dismay at seeing the Agriculture Committee singled out. Other committees with less to do, in his judgment, employed clerks. (Congressional Globe, March 23, 1854, p. 727.) However, it would not be until 1863 that Mr. Joseph McCollough was appointed as the Committee's first clerk. (Congressional Directory, Washington, D.C., 1863.)
On December 9, 1856, during debate on another resolution authorizing committee clerks, Senator Hamilton Fish of New York again raised the issue of unnecessary clerk hiring, and objected to consideration of the resolution at that time. Consequently, the resolution was referred to the Committee on Retrenchment for further study and review. (Congressional Globe, December 9, 1856, p. 57.) By December 1856, the matter was considered and debate proceeded on the question of whether certain committees had sufficient duties to justify hiring clerks. The resolution was amended and approved, but upon its approval the Senate adopted a second resolution submitted by Senator Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana to create a Special Committee to study ways to "reduce the number and increase the efficiency of the committees." (Congressional Globe, December 23, 1856, pp. 182-184.)
On February 17, 1857, that Special Committee reported a resolution amending Senate rules to consolidate or abolish certain standing committees. The Committee on Agriculture was not included in the list of new or reorganized committees. On February 24, the Senate considered the Special Committee's proposal. However, since the end of the 34th Congress was near, the matter was tabled. (Congressional Globe, February 24, 1856, p. 848.)
Later, during a special session of the Senate, on March 5, 1857, the Special Committee's recommendations were again considered. On that day, the Senate approved the resolution, as amended, and the Committee on Agriculture was discontinued. (Journal of the Senate, March 5, 1857, p. 386.) It seems clear from the public record that the lack of a clear legislative agenda during those early years led to the demise of the Senate Committee on Agriculture. It is not until 1888 that there is a record of the Committee holding hearings on issues. Among the final items considered by the Committee was a petition from farmers in Maine asking for the creation of a federal Department of Agriculture. (A Report by Senator James Harlan of Iowa, of a Memorial by the Citizens of Maine Praying for the Establishment of a Department of Agriculture, 34th Congress, 3rd Session, Report Number 292, 1857, Microfiche in the Library of the Senate, U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.) That desire to create a Department of Agriculture would come to fruition in the next decade, and with it a new Senate Committee on Agriculture.