Do you remember having jitters on the first day at a new school? It could be a strange environment with unfamiliar classrooms, new teachers, and fidgety students who wanted to be somewhere else. New Members of Congress have had similar feelings.
In March 1921, more than 100 newly-elected Members of Congress milled about in a large room in the House Office Building. The atmosphere was a little like a gathering of incoming high school freshmen, as Members-elect introduced themselves to their new colleagues. They then looked to a nattily-dressed man at the front of the room, Clerk of the House William Tyler Page. While Page insisted the forum “isn’t a school, and I am not a schoolmaster,” he aimed to give the House freshmen a tutorial that sounded much like the start of secondary school—a do’s-and-don’ts class on House procedures and folkways.
Page had worked in the House since the early 1880s, observing scores of newcomers learn the institutional ropes—some with more success than others. In particular, a surge in new Members at the start of the 64th Congress (1915–1917) impressed upon him the need for some kind of formal preparation for freshmen. That Congress, 119 Members-elect, many of whom had never served in public office, descended upon Congress. In the year that elapsed between the elections in November 1914 and the convening of the new Congress in December 1915, Page recalled a flurry “of correspondence on sundry subjects. Most of the letters were inquiries about the way things were conducted here.” Many Members faced a steep learning curve upon their arrival in Washington. One reported incident of a new Member leaping from his seat to shout “Mis’ Chairman” during a caucus meeting exemplified some of the challenges that House support staff faced with a large class of neophyte Members.
When he became Clerk of the House after World War I, Page designed a forum to introduce the Members-elect to the House’s “rules, practice, and modes of procedure.” Page wanted to “get all the recruits together, invite them to ask questions and answer them as best I can.” The incoming class of 117 freshmen for the 67th Congress (1921–1923) became Page’s test case for showing new Members “how to behave and what to do in the polite society of the House of Representatives.” Assembled in the Caucus Room of the (now Cannon) House Office Building three days before the swearing-in of the new Congress, Members-elect met Speaker Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts and a few incumbents. Topics ranged from the procedural (shepherding a bill to passage), to logistical (hiring practices and franking privileges), to social (proper decorum for the House Floor and for visiting the White House). The meetings avoided controversial or partisan topics. Many Members-elect asked about eateries near the House Floor and around the Capitol. Manuel Herrick of Oklahoma asked if he might haul a trunk of personal effects into his office, and whether that space might double as his living quarters.
Page also appreciated the human element of being a newcomer, recognizing that life as a “rookie” could be “a bit lonesome.” To that end, he encouraged Members-elect to get to know one another. For the 68th Congress (1923–1925) freshman forum, Page made lapel tags listing Members’ names and states to facilitate introductions. Theodore Burton of Ohio complimented Page’s program because it provided Members-elect, “a clearer idea of the rules, point the way to greater usefulness, and encourage them to be enthusiastic in their work.”
Although Page denied he was a “headmaster,” the structure of his program and its goals indicated otherwise. More importantly, his seminar gave freshmen some confidence in an unfamiliar environment. When the signal bells rang on the opening day they knew at least some of the basics—locating the nearest bathroom, grabbing a good sandwich, and joining in debate on the House Floor.
Sources: The Sun (Baltimore, MD), April 3, 1921 and November 27, 1923; Washington Post, December 1, 1923; Boston Daily Globe, December 20, 1927; Jennifer E. Manning and R. Eric Petersen, “First-Term Members of the House of Representatives and Senate, 64th-113th Congresses,” 25 January 2013, Report R41283, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.Follow @USHouseHistory