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Capitol Discovery

Senate staffers come across a historic treasure in a dusty storage room

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After senate staffers Clare Weeks Amoruso and Douglas Connolly finished cleaning out a storeroom in the subbasement of the U.S. Capitol this past November, they noticed a door to a nearby room ajar. Curious, they walked inside and found floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with dust-covered boxes of decades-old insurance brochures and payroll records. Then the spine of a book bound in cloth and leather caught Connolly’s eye. Stacked carelessly with others on a low shelf, and bearing the dates 1790-1881 in gilt digits, the book was blandly titled Senators Compensation and Mileage.

Opening the large, dusty volume, they found its rag-paper pages covered with notes in ornate script, and column after column of numbers within neat rules, and names in lists, and signatures writ large. "All of a sudden," said Connolly, "there was Thomas Jefferson." Here, too, was Aaron Burr and John Adams, whose signature matched that on the dust jacket of David McCullough’s biography of Adams, which Amoruso was then reading.

"It was an ‘oh my God’ kind of moment," she says. "We couldn’t believe it was real," says Connolly. Even though it was past quitting time, Connolly called the historian of the Senate, Richard Baker, who came running.

One look at the book told Baker that he "was holding something significant" and that he’d better call home to say he’d be working late. Here was the long-lost official payroll and expense register for the Senate’s first 90 years, the one-of-a-kind record of every dollar paid to senators in wages and travel reimbursements. A second look revealed mold on the fore edge, cause for getting the book to a conservation lab.

Not only was it the genuine article, said Baker during a press conference set up by then Majority Leader Tom Daschle, but "there is nothing that comes remotely close to it in the archives of the Senate." Near it were 59 successor volumes of ledgers, books not as dramatic as the ledger dubbed "S1" because they cover later, better-documented times.

The first ledger chronicles spending in the Senate from the time it had 26 members representing the 13 states until it had 76 from 38 states. To historians, its raw data promise a lode of information and insights to be coaxed and tweaked, teased and winkled from its pages. After only a cursory examination, for instance, Baker found notations accompanying entries for Senate stipends during a special session on March 4, 1801, which revealed that the world’s greatest deliberative body advised and consented to the appointment of President John Adams’ entire cabinet in a single day.

The ledger also shows that senators were paid $6 per day when the legislature was in session. Travel was reimbursed at 30 cents a mile for up to 20 miles a day, the federal government’s first per diem perk. (Two centuries later, senators are reimbursed at only 6 cents more a mile for road trips.) In an early instance of paid sick leave, "Mr. [Richard] Potts [of Maryland] was detained last January on the road by sickness" and received $49 more for his pains.

The ledger also reveals that Congress raised a senator’s pay in 1816 from the $6 per diem to $1,500 a year—only to see some incumbents voted out by constituents angry over the raise. (Today a senator earns $154,700 a year and a per diem of $165 when traveling.)

But the ledger also indicates that senators did pitch in financially during the Civil War. The newfound records prove what historians had suspected but had not been able to prove: every senator paid the 5 percent "war tax" imposed on top-bracket salaries.

Even innocuous-seeming entries in the ledger may prove rich to historians. The book, for instance, includes a rather mundane dunning letter from the presidentially appointed comptroller of the Treasury, Joseph Anderson, to Walter Lowrie, secretary of the Senate, stating that the Senate had claimed too many expenses in 1832 and thus owed $5,845.20. But, in fact, Baker believes, this letter was a salvo in a bitter battle between President Andrew Jackson and the Senate over the national banking system. It appears to be political payback for the Senate’s failure to do the president’s bidding. Later, the Senate would vote to "censure" Jackson.

According to a newspaper clipping pasted in the book, the journal came to the attention of the eighth secretary of the Senate in 1884, who ordered it rebound in the belief it ought to last several centuries longer "with proper care." But less than a century passed before someone, probably from the Disbursing Office, put it in storage in SSB1 (Senate Sub Basement 1), part of a suite of rooms built beneath the Capitol’s steps when the building’s East Front was extended in 1962.

As luck would have it the room—dark, dry and cool—proved reasonably friendly to old paper. Then, on November 1, Clare Amoruso went to SSB3 in search of the voting records of former Senator Walter F. Mondale, who had been tapped by the Democrats to run for the vacancy created by Senator Paul Wellstone’s death in an airplane crash a week earlier. (Mondale would lose that election to Norm Coleman.)

There she encountered an aide from the Capitol Architect’s office who told her that the storerooms in the subbasement would soon be demolished to make room for escalators to the new visitors’ center, now under construction. Amoruso returned two weeks later with Connolly to save some records. It was then that they discovered the ledger.

Since then, the book has traveled to the Library of Congress, where it was scanned, and then went on to the National Archives’ conservation laboratory. A digital facsimile of the ledger will soon appear on the Senate Web site, www.senate.gov.

Baker plans to display the book in the Senate visitors’ center, scheduled for completion in 2005, which means it will then reside within yards of where it sat in the dusty dark for decades.

"The book speaks volumes," Baker says, but it will take time for historians to unlock all its myriad secrets. "It will speak very slowly, having been silent for so long."

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