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What LBJ can teach new Congress members about gaining power in the House

Robert Caro’s recent article on secrets he uncovered while digging through Lyndon Johnson’s archives provides fascinating glimpses into how political power is wielded in Washington. The ability to raise a lot of money proved as much a key factor in political success then as it does today. But the dynamics that drive current members and their contributors differ dramatically. As a young rank-and-file member, Johnson acted with a kind of financial and political independence rarely seen today. While it’s tough for current members to display Johnson-like entrepreneurship, opportunities exist.

Johnson was 29 years old when he arrived in Congress in May 1937. His first couple of years as a House member were unremarkable, as documented by his various letters to committee chairs and more senior colleagues. As befitted a junior member, he politely sought favors from or just a few minutes of conversation with those more powerful than him.

But then something changed. In October 1940, when Johnson was 32 and just three years into his House career, he began receiving letters from more senior colleagues who wanted a few minutes of his time. Caro describes these letters as supplicant in tone, just as Johnson’s earlier letters had been.

So what happened in October 1940? Johnson made a career-changing discovery: He could use his connections with Texas oilmen to raise a lot of money for his Democratic colleagues.

Construction magnates Herman and George Brown had been major financiers of Johnson’s political career. Johnson “repaid” their generosity with federal contracts, and they, in turn, brought many of their big oil friends into the fold. These men wanted assurances that Congress wouldn’t do away with the oil depletion allowance or the various tax breaks from which they benefited. Johnson was happy to oblige, and for his efforts, they all wrote checks for $5,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

George Brown coordinated the October 1940 fundraising effort and, per Johnson’s instructions, had each donor enclose with their check a letter (written by Johnson) telling the DCCC which candidates to support. After the money was disbursed, Johnson followed up with telegrams to each candidate making sure they knew that he was responsible for the contributions.

Because Texas oil money was a “renewable resource” that Johnson could easily tap, he became a hero to members who needed campaign cash. Caro notes that while there was a lot of gratitude for what Johnson had done, “self-interest” dictated that members remain on good terms with him.

Considering the institutional dynamics of the House today, it’s amazing to consider what Johnson was able to accomplish in his second term in office. Even Sam Rayburn, a fellow Texan and then-speaker of the House, told the Texas oilmen who sought his advice to run their contributions through Johnson rather than the DCCC.

That would never happen today. Rank-and-file members, like Johnson was in 1940, wield little power vis-à-vis party leaders. Leaders set the agenda, determine which bills come to the floor and in what form, and play an outsize role in determining member committee assignments and access to the leadership ladder. Imagine Speaker Nancy Pelosi telling a big donor to funnel contributions through a sophomore member rather than the DCCC.

Members today accrue power by toeing the party line, not by acting as independent power brokers. Johnson’s bold ingenuity provided him with a pathway to leadership. But the opposite is true today: Members who follow their own paths rather than their leaders are not rewarded with leadership posts, chair positions, and plum committee assignments. Choosing autonomy is akin to choosing irrelevance.

Since Johnson’s era, the roles and expectations of members with regards to their donors have become watered down. Given their lack of institutional and political influence, today’s rank-and-file members essentially offer donors a solid Democratic or solid Republican vote. And perhaps that’s enough for donors who support a partisan agenda. The question is whether there are donors for members who don’t walk in lockstep with their leaders.

The class of 2018 has an opportunity to set new fundraising and political boundaries, just as Johnson did in 1940. Take one example: Like Johnson when he was first elected to the House, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is 29 years old, and like Johnson, she’s experimenting with different approaches to fundraising. While Johnson’s approach relied on big-money donors, Ocasio-Cortez is asking her supporters for a small monthly donation, which she compares to a Netflix subscription. It’s a way to avoid the grind of constant fundraising, but it’s also a potential way to build a large, independent base.

Some first-term members of the 116th are also following the tradition of establishing leadership PACs right away. While many of these fundraising committees have become slush funds for the members who run them, new members can (and should) return them to their original purpose: to raise campaign money for like-minded colleagues. Independent-minded members can help other independent-minded candidates, while building political support for themselves in the chamber.

Wresting power from the leadership is no easy task in today’s House, but modern applications of Johnson’s example are possible, as long as members are willing to take political and financial risks.

This piece originally appeared in Vox’s Mischiefs of Faction on February 7, 2019.

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Topics: Representation & Leadership