House Ways and Means Committee: Rich with history

(CBS News) "CBS This Morning" broadcast from the House Ways and Means Committee Hearing Room on Capitol Hill Wednesday. The committee deals with one of the primary functions of any government: taxes.

American moviegoers recently "met" one of the members of this committee in the new movie "Lincoln," in which Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, a leading abolitionist and fiery Republican who served as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee during the Civil War. Eight presidents have served on the powerful committee before becoming commanders in chief, as did eight vice presidents and four Supreme Court justices.

Matt Wasniewski, House of Representatives historian, says in the 19th century, the Ways and Means chairman was the second most powerful person in the House after the speaker. He said, "The role of Congress, one of the primary roles, is to raise revenue and expend that money on federal programs, and this is a committee that has a key role in that process."

Wilbur Mills, who chaired the committee for 18 years, played a key role in implementing President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society programs in the 1960s, and was so influential, a colleague told the New York Times, "I never vote against God, motherhood or Wilbur Mills."

The committee room was built in 1933 and designed to reflect the importance of the men who worked in it. Eagles, laurel wreaths and Greek columns decorate the space.

Farar Elliott, the House curator, says the room actually served as the House Chamber from 1949 to 1951 while the real one underwent renovations. Elliott said, "We have accounts of this room being very crowded and people coming in and just trying to find a seat anywhere."

The committee has also seen its share of scandal. The powerful Mills was pulled over for drunk driving in 1974 and his companion -- a stripper named Fanne Foxe -- jumped out of the car and waded into the Tidal Basin.

And, in case you were wondering, the term "ways and means" is actually a British term that refers to the ways you raise the means to pay for government.