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The House’s Plot to Steal a Library | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives

In June 1974, as the U.S. House of Representatives opened an impeachment investigation into President Richard M. Nixon amid the Watergate scandal, a construction crew was hard at work on a massive new building for the Library of Congress in the 100 block of Independence Avenue in Southeast, Washington, DC. The location—situated just south of the main Thomas Jefferson library building (which opened in 1897), and just to the west, across First Street, from the iconic Cannon House Office Building (which opened in 1908)—placed the new structure near the heart of Capitol Hill.Elsewhere it may have seemed like the lies and deceit of the Watergate scandal threatened the very foundation of the federal system. But in that unit block at least, the foundation of a new and ambitious federal building was starting to take shape.Architects designed the state-of-the-art facility—which was named for James Madison—to protect the library’s precious historical documents. Three of the nine floors were underground, providing special temperature and humidity control. Only the top floor boasted windows; the other floors were sealed off to protect delicate paper material from ultraviolet light.Congress had authorized the building in 1965 to help alleviate overcrowding across the library complex. The “Library Annex” (later, the John Adams building) had opened in 1939, but the library’s collection continued to grow, so much so that it eventually spent $2 million or more on rented storage every year. Manuscripts entrusted to the national library were scattered in piles throughout the two buildings. Academics and other scholars conducted research in inadequate facilities. And temporary offices erected in the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building had cluttered the grand space for a decade.During the tumultuous summer of 1974, however, a group of Representatives took stock of the House’s own office space and decided that it was overcrowded as well, packed with thousands of Member, committee, and support staff. Perhaps what the House required was a new office building. And perhaps the new library facility was just the space the House needed.“We’re Hanging People from the Chandeliers”In 1965, the same year Congress authorized the construction of the Madison building for the library, a brand-new, massive House office building named after Speaker Samuel Rayburn of Texas opened just down the hill. As the complexity and demands of the federal government grew in the years after World War II, lawmakers hired specialists and aides to handle the growing requirements of constituent casework and policy making. In just the five years between 1965 and 1970, House staff grew by 48 percent and showed no sign of letting up. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 increased congressional oversight over the federal government, raising the number of committee and other support staff. The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 created the Congressional Budget Office and established the Budget Committees in both the House and Senate. “We’re hanging people from the chandeliers,” noted Representative Fortney H. (Pete) Stark of California in 1974. “I sit with [sic] one big room and you try to jam seven or eight staff people in one (other) room.” Capitol Hill staff increased by more than 50 percent again by 1975.Facing a shortage of office space in the House, lawmakers started searching for more room. Stark circulated a petition requesting that Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma consider annexing the unfinished Madison building for use by the House. The needs of lawmakers “are far more important than the storage of books,” the petition said, which gathered the signatures of 230 Representatives. Speaker Albert, who served on the House Office Building Commission alongside Democratic Leader Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., of Massachusetts and Republican Leader John Rhodes of Arizona, announced that he would consider Stark’s proposal, and debated whether to use the Madison building temporarily while the House built itself new office space.A Hero for the LibraryFirst-term Republican Representative Joel Pritchard of Washington was hardly in a position of influence when the House threatened to take over the Madison building. Two years earlier, in 1972, Pritchard had narrowly won his suburban Seattle district. But Pritchard was a seasoned state legislator and he arrived on Capitol Hill as a champion of civil rights, environmental protection, and anti-gambling measures. An affable and athletic politician, Pritchard often organized games of pickleball—a game he invented—among his colleagues from both sides of the aisle. One Seattle-based civic leader recalled that Pritchard was “the glue” that held the Washington state delegation together during the tumultuous years of the Watergate scandal.Pritchard was disappointed to learn of the effort to seize the Madison building for office space. “It’s too bad we can’t do anything about it,” he said to Steve Excell, his legislative assistant. But Excell and the rest of Pritchard’s staff had other ideas and contacted several media outlets to spread the word. Their effort yielded results. “Sometimes Congressmen don’t know when to stop,” the Wall Street Journal wrote under the headline “Capitol Hill Land Grab.” The Journal went on: “If the House needs more space then, it should ask for them to set them up in the marble expanse of the Rayburn Building gymnasium.”Pritchard, meanwhile, found himself arrayed against House leadership and 230 colleagues on the issue. “Oh no, I’m in trouble now,” he told Excell. But Pritchard decided to keep pressing the issue. “We ought to try to help,” he said. The whole conflict gained momentum quickly. “It happened a bit like an accidental firing of a gun setting off a war,” Excell recalled more than 20 years later.Round OnePritchard was not alone in his opposition. In the Senate, a handful of lawmakers criticized the effort by Representative Stark and Speaker Albert. Senator Lee Metcalf of Montana, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Congressional Operations, placed the takeover squarely in the vein of the Watergate scandal. “It is no surprise to any of us that citizens are cynical about the Federal Government,” Metcalf observed. “Any move to take over the Madison Building for congressional office purposes would add to this cynicism.”Amid President Nixon’s resignation in early August and the fallout from Watergate, attention shifted away from the Madison building. But Pritchard still found himself having to speak out. A month later, on August 21, 1974, Pritchard defended the new library building on the House Floor. “I want to go on the record as strongly opposed to this piracy,” he said, adding that Members of Congress simply needed to use their existing space more efficiently.In November, Prichard again noted that “rumors are still floating about the purposed takeover” and lamented that “the building’s fate remains uncertain.” But for the most part, the issue temporarily dropped from congressional consideration.Round TwoDiscussions about the fate of the incomplete Madison Building did not arise again until a year later in the fall of 1975. House leadership pounced on the issue when library officials approached Congress for an additional $33 million supplemental appropriation (beyond the $90 million authorized for the project in 1965) in order to complete building. “The speaker wants the building and he’s tired of taking the heat from both sides,” an anonymous aide to a lawmaker who supported the takeover told the Washington Post. “If the (House) members want the space, let them vote for it.” After returning from the Thanksgiving holiday, Representative Teno Roncalio from Wyoming introduced a bill to acquire the Madison building.This time, however, opposition to the acquisition proved fiercer. “The House should keep its cotton-picking hands off the Library of Congress annex,” the Washington Star wrote. “Congressmen and congressional aides come and go but the books and priceless treasures of Americana housed by the Library of Congress live forever.” The New York Times chimed in a few weeks later: “It would be a travesty of planning and a scandalous waste of funds.” “We hesitate to give Congress any ideas,” the Wall Street Journal joked, “but at the rate it’s going we would suggest that whenever the President plans to be away from the White House for any length of time, he takes steps to lock the door and see that the burglar alarm is turned on.”Academics and other scholars joined the journalists excoriating the plan. “The Library of Congress might be compared to the central nervous system. It is not highly visible outside of Washington, but it is essential to the orderly function of the government and to maintaining scholarly and scientific research,” the Folger Shakespeare Library Director wrote to the Washington Evening Star in defense of his Capitol Hill neighbor. “This is to say that every American has a stake in how well it does its job.” Library officials called the proposed takeover “a calamity, a disaster,” and predicted that losing the building would set them back another 15 years.When a new petition in support of the Madison Building takeover circulated in the House, only 75 lawmakers signed on. Pritchard was again the most proactive opponent; he submitted three bills in December 1975, all with varying cosponsors, that provided the additional $30 million to finish the library building. It helped that in February 1975, the House had relieved some of the immediate need for more office space by acquiring a large building at the base of the Hill (later named the Ford House Office Building) from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, just a few blocks from the Rayburn building. In early December, Roncalio floated another plan to fund the remaining construction for the library with the caveat that six to seven percent of the building be set aside for the House. But Roncalio went on to admit that the “building is not the place to put two or three floors of members’ offices now that it’s been built for other purposes.” He never put his plan before the House.The issue was finally laid to rest when Representative Robert E. Jones of Alabama—chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee, which had jurisdiction over the Madison Building’s construction—submitted legislation to increase the library building’s funding with no strings attached. “The James Madison Memorial Building must be completed, and promptly, if the Library of Congress is to continue to grow and meet its responsibilities to the Congress, the research and academic communities, and the Nation,” he wrote in his committee’s report favoring his bill. The measure passed the House on February 17, 1976, and became law later that month.The Madison Building officially opened as a research library on May 28, 1980. Efforts to build a fourth House Office Building on Capitol Hill never materialized, though the House of Representatives later acquired the O’Neill House Office Building in Washington’s southwest quadrant in 2017.Pritchard had promised voters back home that he would stay no more than 12 years in Congress, and, good to his word, he retired from the House in 1985. He went on to serve as Lieutenant Governor of Washington. And though Pritchard spearheaded the Madison Building’s defense on the part of the Library of Congress, it was his invention of the sport of pickleball that etched his name in the history books.Sources: Congressional Record, Senate, 93rd Cong., 2nd sess. (29 July 1974): 25451; Congressional Record, Extension of Remarks, 93rd Cong., 2nd sess. (21 August 1974): 29747; Congressional Record, House, 93rd Cong., 2nd sess. (21 November 1974): 36987; An Act to Amend Public Law 89-260 to Authorize Additional Funds for the Library of Congress James Madison Memorial Building, Public Law 89-260, 84 Stat. 69; To Amend the Act of October 19, 1965, to Provide Additional Authorization for the Library of Congress James Madison Memorial Building, Public Law 94–219, 90 Stat. 194; A Bill to Provide for an Additional Office Building for the House of Representatives and to Authorize Additional Space for the Library of Congress, H.R. 11000, 94th Cong. (1975); A Bill to Amend Public Law 89-260 to Authorize Funds for the Library of Congress James Madison Memorial Building, H.R. 11017, H.R. 11116, H.R.11189, 94th Cong. (1975); Committee on Public Works and Transportation, Library of Congress Madison Memorial Building, 94th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 807 (1976); Boston Globe, 6 July 1975; Los Angeles Times, 9 December 1975; New York Times, 18 November 1975; Wall Street Journal, 2 August 1974, 2 December 1975; Washington Evening Star, 24 July 1974, 1 August 1974, 11 August 1974, 27 October 1975, 23 November 1975, 1 December 1975, 3 December 1975; Washington Post, 31 July 1974, 22 November 1975; R. Eric Peterson, “Legislative Branch Staffing, 1954 – 2007,” Report 40056, 15 October 2008, Congressional Research Service, 1–2; “Joel Pritchard: An Oral History,” by Anne Kilgannon, Washington State Oral History Program, Office of the Secretary of State, 2000, The interview transcript is available online at: https://app.leg.wa.gov/oralhistory/pritchard/; John Y. Cole, “On These Walls: Inscriptions and Quotations in the Buildings of the Library of Congress,” https://www.loc.gov/loc/walls/.