Before Lyndon Baines Johnson rose through the political ranks as a Member of the House and Senate (and later Vice President and President of the United States), the young, congressional secretary to Congressman Richard Kleberg of Texas set his sights on a smaller, lesser-known organization: the Little Congress. Founded in 1919, the Little Congress Club—an organization comprised mainly of congressional aides—offered House and Senate staff first-hand exposure to parliamentary procedures and public speaking experience. The Little Congress modeled itself after the House of Representatives, adopting similar rules, electing officers, and even debating legislation.
In its early years, the Little Congress remained a low-key staff club with modest membership. But, where most viewed the organization as a chance to socialize with colleagues and to learn more about the inner workings of Congress, Johnson saw it as a golden opportunity to fulfill his political ambitions. Frustrated with what he viewed as the mundane life of a congressional staffer, Johnson desperately wanted to jump start his own political career. In April of 1933, the 24-year-old sought to raise his profile on Capitol Hill by running for Speaker of the Little Congress. To achieve his unlikely goal (seniority was the typical path to power in the House and in the Little Congress), Johnson encouraged a wide range of congressional employees previously not represented in the organization—Capitol police officers, elevator operators, and mailmen, for instance—to join the staff club. With the backing of the new members, Johnson pulled off a surprise victory and was elected Speaker. “My election,” the new leader remarked, “will make a New Deal for all Little Congresses.”
Glenn Rupp, a House Page from 1932 to 1936, and a member of the Little Congress, recalled that once Johnson became Speaker, “he ran it as his own little club.” Indeed, the future U.S. President transformed the informal group into a finely-tuned organization. Rather than meeting monthly, Johnson arranged weekly gatherings which featured prominent speakers such as Senator Huey Long of Louisiana. Moreover, the Little Congress garnered the attention of the press and Members, who closely monitored the club's mock debates of upcoming Senate and House legislation. Aware of the organization's growing influence on the Hill, Johnson boasted before one such debate in 1933, “If the past history of Little Congress is any guide, our vote will accurately forecast sentiment of Congress on the matter.”
The organization's bylaws mandated that a Speaker could only serve one term. Although Johnson chose not to challenge the rule, he continued to work behind the scenes, running the Little Congress like a political machine. Ultimately, some Members and staff tired of the prominent role of the organization under Johnson's direction, and by the 1940s, the Little Congress disbanded. However, by this time, Johnson had achieved his goal of becoming a Representative having won a special election for a Texas district in 1937. All in all, it's hard to ignore the connection between Johnson, the Little Congress, and his rising political fortunes.
Sources: Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, Volume 1 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983); Washington Post, April 26, 1933; Washington Post, May 2, 1933; Washington Post, May 21, 1933; Washington Post, June 20, 1965.