AC/DC: Air Conditioning + the Rise of Big Government

AC/DC: Air Conditioning + the Rise of Big Government

By Sean Braswell



Because even the most welcome invention can have some unintended consequences.

By Sean Braswell

With a job approval rating hovering around 10 percent, the U.S. Congress is less popular than cockroaches, hemorrhoids and dog poop. But if there’s one thing Americans dislike more than having Congress around, it’s not having it around.

This year, though, as members of Congress depart Capitol Hill for their August recess, it may ease your outrage over their undeserved vacation to think back to a time when Congress had an even longer break, and did even less.

In fact, if there’s one necessity underlying the rise of year-round federal government — not to mention the growth in the size of that government — it’s not the New Deal, crony capitalism, the welfare state or other usual suspects. It’s another accepted facet of American life that’s far, far more popular than Congress this time of year: Air-conditioning.  

The notion of a climate-controlled environment, like a full-time member of Congress, was sheer science fiction.

For much of our nation’s history, being a federal lawmaker was a part-time position. Until the 20th century, Congress’s legislative sessions ran for just six months, from December to May, leaving the rest of the year for representatives to work other jobs, bring in the harvest or do whatever needed doing back home. The calendar was also designed with another critical factor in mind: Avoiding Washington’s infernal summer heat and humidity.

Many presidents were known to skip town during the summer months. Others were not so lucky. When a gunman shot James Garfield in Washington one sweltering summer in 1881, naval engineers used half a million pounds of ice and an air blower to keep the wounded president’s room 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the 90-degree White House. Despite the crude attempt at air-conditioning, Garfield died two months later.

At the time, the notion of a climate-controlled environment, like a full-time member of Congress, was sheer science fiction. As another prominent 19th-century American, Mark Twain, is said to have joked, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”

Until 1902, when Willis Carrier, a 25-year-old Cornell engineer at the Buffalo Forge Company, finally did. Carrier’s epiphany allegedly came while staring through the fog on a misty train platform when he “realized he could dry air by passing it through water to create fog,” thereby controlling the moisture levels of air, and thus the level of humidity.

BW image of Willis Carrier next to air conditioner

Willis Carrier in 1922 posing with air conditioner

Source Getty

Initially used to cool printing plants, Carrier’s industrial air-conditioning relied on ammonia as its refrigerant. And it was not until the 1920s that less toxic refrigerants were developed and AC arrived to delight Americans in movie theaters, department stores and, eventually, government buildings.

Air-conditioning was installed in the House chamber in 1928, and in the Senate shortly thereafter. When the White House’s West Wing was refurbished in 1929, AC was installed there, too, and that’s when President Herbert Hoover ceased spending his summers in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Over the next three decades, AC spread across D.C. — starting, as with most privileges in Washington, at the top in the offices of committee chairmen and other congressional leaders.

It wasn’t long before employers, including the federal government, noticed some obvious upticks in productivity from climate-controlled workplaces. Before AC, the federal government had heat days, like snow days, and when the heat/humidity climbed above a certain threshold, employees were sent home. In 1953, over 26,000 federal employees were released during a particularly hot summer week in Washington.

As AC made government workers more comfortable, it also facilitated more of them.

With studies showing that office productivity increased by as much as 24 percent with AC, a 1955 federal advisory panel concluded that air-conditioning “is rapidly becoming an accepted necessity.” Later that year, the General Services Administration, which manages federal buildings, was appropriated $181 million to install AC in all federal buildings reaching sustained temperatures over 80 degrees.

Of course, as AC made government workers more comfortable, it facilitated more of them. According to former Senate historian Richard Baker, in the 1950s, fewer than 2,500 staff members and aides attended the 535 members of Congress. Today there are about six times as many staffers, who work throughout the year. 

The federal government in D.C. has swollen noticeably in other ways since the 1950s. Eight new cabinet departments have been established since 1953. And from that point until 2004, real federal expenditures ballooned from $2,000 to over $7,000 per capita — or about 55 times what they were when Carrier invented AC at the turn of the last century.

Obviously, correlation is not causation, and the advent of a full-time Congress and federal juggernaut was also bolstered by air travel and a host of other factors. But it’s hard to imagine Washington as it is today without Carrier’s blessed invention. AC ushered in a new era of cooler, bigger government in D.C. Whether it’s that much more productive remains a matter of debate.