The United States Congress is 225 years old this year and we think this is cause for celebration and reflection. Congress Week is the creation of the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress, an organization of more than 40 institutions which has the goal of promoting a better public understanding of Congress as the branch of government closest to the people. We want to encourage a focus on Congress each year during the month of April, the month in 1789 when Congress first got down to the business of governing the United States under its new Constitution.
Governing is a process, not a proclamation, and so it was in 1789. What is the actual birthday of Congress? The Constitution proclaimed that Congress would begin on March 4, 1789, at their meeting place in New York City. The day before citizens of New York City fired 13 cannon rounds to commemorate the original 13 colonies that had become states. The next morning they fired 11 cannon rounds to announce the gathering of the 11 states that had ratified the Constitution. But despite the cannon fire and the ringing of church bells, Congress did not instantly begin its work. The new Representatives and Senators chosen in the first federal election began gathering, but the number of House members necessary to make a quorum and begin the new government did not occur until April 1. Enough Senators finally arrived on April 6. It is fitting that even the birthday of Congress was a process, not a single event.
Some members of the First Congress worried that things were moving too slowly. Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, a member of the First Congress, wrote “We lose credit, spirit, everything. The public will forget the government before it is born.” But the public did not forget and now, 225 years later, the great experiment in representative democracy is still an ongoing process.
While Congress is a co-equal branch of government, the action today seems to be embodied in the president, not Congress. We have President’s Day every year, we conduct grand inaugural events when presidents are sworn in, and the news tends to focus on the president as the one individual who should govern the nation. Yet when each new Congress convenes every two years, the public pays hardly a nod to the event. So Congress Week is a device, a non-partisan reminder, that Congress bears co-equal responsibility for governing the nation. Its rich and colorful history needs more of the nation’s attention.
In coming years we hope Congress Week will spark a closer examination of the First Branch of government, encourage schools to develop programs to highlight the work of Congress, and stimulate more scholarly research into Congress by a wide range of disciplines.
Congress has governed the nation for 225 years, and we hope it will survive and thrive for centuries to come. It can only do so if the nation continues to understand and appreciate the Constitution of the United States and the meaning of representative democracy. James Madison and other founders believed strongly that an informed citizenry was the best hope for good government. We hope Congress Week will contribute to an informed citizenry.