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Idea of the Senate | The Senate’s Obligation to Lead

Lyndon Johnson, 1959
Image of Lyndon Johnson

After the Second World War, the Senate passed through a decade of narrow majorities held by both parties, but the mid-term elections of 1958 vastly swelled the ranks of congressional Democrats in both the Senate and the House. With the presidential election of 1960 looming and the popular incumbent president Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, ineligible to run for a third term under the Twenty-second Amendment, political observers believed that the legislative successes or failures of the new Congress would strongly influence the next presidential election. Many considered Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson to be a frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and watched to see whether he could command his side of the aisle.

Lyndon B. Johnson has aptly been called the “Master of the Senate.” He took over his party’s leadership at a time when his two immediate predecessors had been defeated for reelection, and when ambitious presidential initiatives had been stalled in legislative gridlock. Both political parties were internally divided, and party discipline seemed impossible to exert. During his two years as minority leader and six as majority leader, from 1953 to 1961, Johnson proved an innovative, forceful, and persuasive leader who broke old traditions and devised new legislative strategies to reach consensus and enact significant legislation.

Johnson was born on a farm near Stonewall, Texas, in 1908, attended public schools, and graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College. He taught high school until 1931 when he came to Washington as secretary to the newly elected Texas representative Richard M. Kleberg. Johnson returned to Texas in 1935 to become state director of the National Youth Administration and jumped into a special election to fill a vacancy in the House in 1937. As a member of the House he developed a close personal friendship with Texas congressman Sam Rayburn, who became Speaker in 1940. Johnson was elected to a Senate seat in 1948. He became Democratic whip in 1951 and was elected as his party’s floor leader two years later.

For the first six years of his leadership, first the Republicans and then the Democrats had operated with no more than two-vote majorities. The congressional elections of 1958, however, took place during a severe economic recession, which voters blamed on the current administration. Consequently, Democrats gained 16 seats in the Senate and 49 seats in the House. Johnson was elated over the victory, until other senators warned him that party discipline would be much harder to maintain with a large majority than a narrow one. Indeed, Johnson immediately encountered complaints from younger members of his conference against the majority leader’s concentration of power in determining the legislative program and policies of the party. They cited specifically his refusal to call more than one meeting of the conference each year, and asked for a greater degree of democracy in the operation of the Senate. Johnson responded to these concerns by calling more conferences during the 86th Congress, from 1959 to 1961, than during the previous six years combined. It was at the first of these meetings that Johnson, who had rarely made use of party conferences, signaled a change when he addressed the Democratic Conference on January 7, 1959, and set out the challenges that lay ahead and the Senate’s obligation to lead.

Remarks of Lyndon B. Johnson to the Democratic Conference

The capabilities of government must keep pace with the capabilities of the people it serves. For we know with certainty: there is no expense of government more costly or intolerable than the burden of laggard government.

That is the work to which we come.

It is our purpose to fashion greater capabilities for our government from the growing capabilities of man. . . .

We have—by our majority here—an obligation to lead. We do not have authority to command. We have powers to advise and consent. We do not have powers to implement and accomplish.

These facts we appreciate, yet they do not matter much beyond the confines of the Senate.

Our mandate is a mandate for confident and creative and constructive leadership—beginning now, not two years hence.

We shall honor that mandate.

Our opportunity—the great opportunity of this Senate—is to marshal the considerable resources of inquiry of the Legislative branch to the task of defining for America new goals for the many new capabilities of its people, its economy, its technology and its national will. . . .

We, here in the Senate, have within the powers open to us under the Constitution a great opportunity to reach out across the land—into the universities and colleges, into private business, into labor, the professions, all walks of our national life—and ask great minds to come here to help us seek and search.

We can reach beyond our shores—to all the Western world and especially to our neighbor Republics of this hemisphere—and ask others to share this labor with us.

We can bring men together to explore tomorrow’s horizons for our land, our hemisphere, and the world.

From such explorations, we will find the facts and form the ideas with which we shall work the next decade to make government responsive to the potential of the future.

The world is in a race today that is more likely to be won by minds than missiles. We neglect this at our peril.

There is much that we must do and shall do in this session, yet, for our work, we do not come with a checklist in hand to attend only to the pressing problems of the present.

We are—as the people who sent us here—looking to the future.1

Johnson reminded the conference that they had won an unprecedented victory that had given them great strength in numbers but had also provided them with a challenge. The nation expected much from its legislators on both the domestic and international front. Problems of inflation, poverty, taxes, education, and urban decay demanded their attention. On the world scene, the United States remained locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. American voters expected the Senate to protect and improve their interests at home and abroad. But while they had an obligation to lead, Johnson reminded the senators that under the constitutional system they had no authority to command. They had powers to advise and consent, but not to implement and accomplish. Under the system of division of powers, the expanded majorities in the Senate and House would still need to work with a president from the opposition party, and would need to find creative and constructive ways to proceed.

The majority leader recommended to his colleagues that they make use of the Senate’s “considerable resources of inquiry” to call in experts from around the country and around the world, from universities, businesses, labor, and the professions, to help them shape their domestic and international programs. He was not delivering a State of the Union message and did not stand before them with a checklist of things to accomplish, but he was challenging them to investigate issues and devise programs to shape the nation’s future.

As Johnson spoke, he was being measured as a potential presidential candidate in 1960, but he reminded senators that their mandate was for then and there, “not two years hence.” During the next two years a number of senators would announce their candidacy for president and indeed, the party would nominate a senator for president. To Johnson’s surprise, that candidate was Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy, who in turn selected Lyndon Johnson as his vice presidential running mate. As Johnson had predicted, the success of their ticket depended in part on the public reaction to how well Congress had functioned with its expanded majorities.

Further Reading:

Caro, Robert A. Master of the Senate. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Ritchie, Donald A., ed. Minutes of the Senate Democratic Conference, Fifty-Eighth Congress through Eighty-Eighth Congress, 1903-1964. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1998.

Shuman, Howard E. “Lyndon B. Johnson: The Senate’s Powerful Persuader.” In First Among Equals: Outstanding Senate Leaders in the Twentieth Century, Richard A. Baker and Roger H. Davidson, eds. Washington: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1991.

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1. Donald A. Ritchie, ed., Minutes of the Senate Democratic Conference, Fifty-Eighth Congress through Eighty-Eighth Congress, 1903-1964 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1998), 510-13.