The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 (also known as the Congressional Reorganization Act, ch. 753, 60 Stat. 812, enacted August 2, 1946) was the most comprehensive reorganization of the United States Congress in history to that date.
The need to modernize the national legislature became evident during the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II. During those years of economic crisis and global war, the federal government took on vast new responsibilities—responsibilities that stretched to the breaking point of the capacity of the national legislature, as it was then structured, to cope with a vastly increased workload. At the same time the power and prestige of Congress were rapidly eroding. During the depression and even more so during the war Congress delegated to the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt sweeping authority to implement legislation as he and his agents in the executive branch saw fit. In addition, the war caused Congress a severe loss of prestige. Suddenly, it seemed legislators became the object for all the pent up frustrations and anxieties of war. Some influential commentators charged that Congress's antiquated traditions, cumbersome procedures, and long delays in considering legislation rendered it incapable of meeting the needs of the modern world. The future, they said, rested with the president.
By the end of the war, many legislators had concluded that the only way to recapture their lost stature was to reform the Congress. A key leader of the reform movement was the veteran Wisconsin senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr., scion of Wisconsin's famous political dynasty. In 1945, he and Oklahoma representative A. S. "Mike" Monroney co-chaired a joint committee of Congress to consider what might be done to make the body more efficient and effective. The following year, the committee recommended sweeping reforms, and the committee's co-chairs incorporated many of those reforms into a reorganization measure.
The key provisions of the Act proposed streamlining Congress's cumbersome committee system by reducing the number of standing committees and carefully defining their jurisdictions; upgrading staff support for legislators; strengthening congressional oversight of executive agencies; and establishing an elaborate procedure to put congressional spending and taxation policies on a more rational basis. The bill also required lobbyists to register with Congress and to file periodic reports of their activities.
Under the Act the Committees on Public Buildings and Grounds (1837-1946), Rivers and Harbors (1883-1946), Roads (1913–46), and the Flood Control (1916–46) were combined to form the Committee on Public Works. Its jurisdiction from the beginning of the 80th Congress (1947–48) through the 90th Congress (1967–68) remained unchanged.
Final passage was something of a tour de force for La Follette. Although practically all legislators wanted reform of some sort, entrenched interests, especially among southern Democrats, resisted efforts to reform the existing committee system, which they dominated. Nevertheless, the measure passed by large margins in both houses with the key provisions more or less intact.
The Act produced mixed results. Probably its greatest success was in equipping legislators and their committees with staffs of experts to help draft bills and analyze the complex issues that come before Congress. Legislative oversight of the executive branch also improved as a result of reorganization. In other areas reorganization fell short. The positive effects of reducing committee numbers was at least partly counterbalanced by the unexpected proliferation of subcommittees, which were not regulated in the act. Many lobbyists exploited loopholes in the act to avoid full compliance. The ambitious reform of the budget process failed to work and was abandoned after a couple of years. Above all, the act failed to achieve its major objective. It slowed but did not reverse the flow of power and prestige from the legislative branch to the executive branch.