For years, diplomats received hardship pay for enduring Washington’s oppressive summer heat. Members of Congress received no such bonus. Consequently, unless the demands of war or other national emergencies kept them in session, they tried to adjourn before high temperatures and humidity overwhelmed the Capitol’s primitive air-conditioning system.
When the Senate moved to its current chamber in 1859, members paid particular attention to that room’s steam-powered ventilation apparatus. In their first summer session there, during June 1860, senators complained of the hot, stale air. Only the looming crisis of the Civil War kept them from authorizing reconstruction of the chamber adjacent to the building’s outside walls so that they could at least open some windows for cross-ventilation.
Another 70 years passed before the 1929 installation of a cooling system proudly advertised as “manufactured weather.” That system also proved inadequate on the hottest days. Although some improvement came with the renovation of the chamber in 1950, members at mid-century still had to contend with the city’s summertime climate.
On July 27, 1956, Congress completed work on its appropriations bills and adjourned for the year. In doing this at a time when the new fiscal year began on July 1, members followed the traditional practice of concluding the year’s session before the truly sultry “dog-days” of August set in. The end to the 1956 session came at midnight, as Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and his colleagues boisterously applauded the chamber’s presiding officer, Vice President Richard Nixon.
As senators left town, none could have realized that day’s history-making significance. Never again in the 20th century, owing to increased congressional workload and better air conditioning, would Congress adjourn for the year as early as July.
There were other reasons for the 1956 July adjournment. Four days earlier, the House of Representatives had overwhelmingly passed a major civil rights bill. Georgia Senator Richard Russell, who opposed the legislation, convinced Majority Leader Johnson that bringing up that bill in the Senate would trigger a filibuster guaranteed to keep them in session until the mid-August Democratic national convention. The bitterness sure to result from a prolonged debate, Russell warned, would weaken the party at its convention and destroy any hope Johnson might have had of gaining a future presidential nomination.
Perhaps departing senators had in mind House Speaker John Nance Garner’s advice about summer sessions: “No good legislation ever comes out of Washington after June.”