Charles W. Johnson

Charles W. Johnson spent four decades on Capitol Hill working in the Office of the Parliamentarian. He served as Parliamentarian of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1994 to 2004. In this nonpartisan office, Johnson worked to maintain and document official procedures of the House while advising Members of Congress on legislative endeavors.

Featured Audio

"Beehive of Activity"

"Beehive of Activity"
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Charles W. Johnson explains that his goal was to anticipate issues before they arose in order to assist Members with their legislative duties.
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded April 22, 2010 Deed of Gift

Abstract & Transcript

This oral history collection with former House Parliamentarian Charles W. Johnson contains three interviews. Johnson recounts his early life, education, and involvement in the U.S. military in the first interview. He reflects on the nature of public service and political involvement in the 1950s, as well as the culture of higher education, which was mostly absent of women and people of color. He details the interview process for his first position in the Office of the Parliamentarian in 1964 and describes his early work to turn the office’s administrative scrapbooks—a collection of clippings and notes compiled since 1920—into published volumes of official precedents.

In the second interview, Johnson takes a closer look at the history and development of the Precedents of the U.S. House of Representatives, starting with the volumes compiled by former Parliamentarians Asher Crosby Hinds and Clarence Andrew Cannon. He also describes his own role in editing and organizing the volumes published by Lewis Deschler and William Holmes Brown. He discusses the Office of the Parliamentarian’s relationship with the House committees, particularly the Committee on Rules and the impact of its expansion in 1961. Johnson remembers the changes the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 enacted, including the introduction of electronic voting.

The third interview focuses on the creation of a formal ethics process in the House. Johnson outlines the investigation of New York Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in the late 1960s and the institutional effects of the Supreme Court ruling on the decision of the House to exclude Powell from the 90th Congress (1967-1969). He also describes the origins of what is now the House Committee on Ethics.

Throughout this series of interviews, Johnson traces the distinct leadership styles of House Speakers and their relationship with the Parliamentarian’s Office during the many institutional changes in the late twentieth century. He provides a firsthand account of the inner workings of the Office of the Parliamentarian, emphasizing the need for strict confidentiality in interactions with Members of Congress as well as the office’s role as “procedural historians” of the House. This is the first group of interviews in an extensive series the Office of the Historian conducted with Johnson.

Johnson also participated in a series of interviews conducted by the Office of the Historian to commemorate the events of September 11, 2001. His transcript and clips from that interview are available on this page as well.

Biography

Charles W. Johnson was born on February 12, 1939, in Mt. Vernon, Westchester County, New York, about 15 miles north of midtown Manhattan. His father, Charles W. Johnson III managed an art-packing and shipping warehouse and his mother, Ellen Gunther Johnson, was a homemaker. When Johnson was 12, his family moved to nearby Scarsdale. Johnson graduated from Bronxville High School in 1956. He attended Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he played basketball for four years and baseball during his senior year. He graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in American Studies in 1960. Johnson then attended the University of Virginia School of Law, in Charlottesville, Virginia, and earned a law degree in 1963. Johnson was admitted to the District of Columbia bar in 1965. From 1963 to 1966, he served in the New York Army National Guard, and from 1967 to 1971 served as a judge advocate general in the U.S. Navy Reserve. Johnson married Martha Finley in April 1964, and they raised two children.

In 1964, Johnson was hired by the Office of the Parliamentarian of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served as an assistant parliamentarian for the next decade. In 1974, when longtime Parliamentarian Lewis Deschler retired, Johnson became deputy parliamentarian and served in that post for two decades. Late in the 103rd Congress (1993-1995) Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington appointed Johnson to succeed William Holmes Brown as House Parliamentarian. He served as Parliamentarian from September 16, 1994, until his retirement on May 20, 2004. That year he won the John W. McCormack Annual Award of Excellence for his House service. Johnson continued to work as a consultant in the Office of the Precedents of the U.S. House to assist in the compilation of volumes on House practice and precedents. He also co-authored Parliament and Congress: Representation and Scrutiny in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Oxford, 2010), a volume written with his counterpart in the British House of Commons. Parliament and Congress is being prepared for a third edition.

Video

Heroes of Flight 93

Charles W. Johnson reflects on the heroism of the passengers of Flight 93.
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded June 9, 2011 Deed of Gift

House Rules and Emergency Recess

Charles W. Johnson provides background on House Rules and emergencies.
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded June 9, 2011 Deed of Gift

Indefinite Emergency Recess

Charles W. Johnson details the parliamentary procedures used to declare a recess during the House session on September 11, 2001.
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded June 9, 2011 Deed of Gift

Paving the Way for a Commemorative Joint Meeting

Charles W. Johnson details the 2002 Commemorative Joint Meeting of Congress in New York City.
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded June 9, 2011 Deed of Gift

Audio

"Beehive of Activity"

"Beehive of Activity"
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Charles W. Johnson explains that his goal was to anticipate issues before they arose in order to assist Members with their legislative duties.
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded April 22, 2010 Deed of Gift

Procedural Historians

Procedural Historians
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Charles W. Johnson explains one of the duties of the House Parliamentarian.
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded June 28, 2010 Deed of Gift

House Parliamentarian Lewis Deschler

House Parliamentarian Lewis Deschler
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Charles W. Johnson describes his predecessor.
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded April 22, 2010 Deed of Gift

Turning Scrapbooks into the Precedents

Turning Scrapbooks into the Precedents
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Charles W. Johnson describes the process through which the Parliamentarian's Office assembled the precedents of the House after the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970.
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded June 28, 2010 Deed of Gift

Assembling the Precedents

Assembling the Precedents
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Charles W. Johnson explains the work of compiling the precedents and an encounter with Ralph Nader.
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded April 22, 2010 Deed of Gift

"Accurate" Precedent

"Accurate" Precedent
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Charles W. Johnson discusses interpreting the rules of the House.
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded June 28, 2010 Deed of Gift

Demands for Transparency

Demands for Transparency
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Charles W. Johnson explains some of the procedural reforms of the 1970s.
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded June 28, 2010 Deed of Gift

Parliamentarians and Speakers

Parliamentarians and Speakers
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Charles W. Johnson recounts the historical relationship between the Parliamentarian's Office and the Speaker of the House.
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded June 28, 2010 Deed of Gift

Powell v. McCormack

Powell v. McCormack
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Charles W. Johnson outlines the lessons the House learned after the Supreme Court ruling concerning the exclusion of New York Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. from the 90th Congress.
Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded March 29, 2011 Deed of Gift

Images & Artifacts

Parliamentarian Charles W. Johnson
<i>Parliamentarian Charles W. Johnson</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_johnsonc_directory.xml
Charles Johnson served as House Parliamentarian for a decade.
Congressional Pictorial Directory, 106th Congress
Parliamentarians with Scrapbook of Precedents
<i>Parliamentarians with Scrapbook of Precedents</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_johnsonc_scrapbook.xml
Parliamentarian Lewis Deschler and his assistant, William T. Roy, examined a scrapbook in the 1930s. Charles Johnson describes these scrapbooks in his oral history interview.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Lawgiver to Lawmakers
<i>Lawgiver to Lawmakers</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_johnsonc_deschler.xml
Parliamentarian Lewis Deschler looked through Cannon's Precedents in 1963. Deschler served as Parliamentarian for 48 years. In his oral history interview, Charles Johnson describes Deschler as "an institution" who profoundly shaped the Office of the Parliamentarian.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object