Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > Congressional Leadership Experience and the Presidency

Feb 22, 2021

Congressional Leadership Experience and the Presidency

tags: presidential history

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.


As Joe Biden is becoming President of the United States, one question that has arisen is whether he will be able to accomplish his domestic goals with such an evenly divided Congress, rather than a mandate of substantial control of both houses, as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson had in the 1930s and 1960s.

History informs us that only a small number of the 45 people who have been president were men of substantial congressional experience, including leadership positions.  And at the top of the list is Joe Biden, with his 36 years in the senate representing Delaware, including his time as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1987-1995, and as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2001-2003, and 2007-2009.  These experiences and challenges, along with being an extremely active and engaged vice president for President Barack Obama, meant he navigated the problems of dealing with the Congressional opposition party in a manner not matched by any other president to the same extent.

However, there were other presidents who did have extensive experience when one combines their senatorial experience with their time in the House of Representatives.  The two presidents with the most years and leadership after Joe Biden were Gerald Ford and Lyndon B. Johnson.

 Ford represented Michigan in the House of Representatives for nearly 25 years from 1949 to late 1973, when he became Richard Nixon’s vice president under the terms of the 25th Amendment after the resignation of Spiro Agnew.  Ford had served as House Minority Leader for nearly nine years from 1965 to late 1973, had made many contacts and connections with the majority House Democratic leadership, and was warmly endorsed as the right person to replace the disgraced Agnew.

Johnson had spent 12 years in the house (1937-1949), and had 12 years in the senate (1949-1961) from Texas, giving him almost the same amount of time in congress as Gerald Ford.  Johnson rose in the senate leadership, becoming Majority Whip (1951-1953), Minority Leader (1953-1955), and Majority Leader (1955-1961). He was the most powerful figure in the latter position in American history, considered a master of legislative procedures, and having an innate ability to convince his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to follow his lead, even though President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the leader of the opposition party.  While his experience as vice president for nearly three years (1961-1963) was an unhappy period, he came to the presidency with unmatched skills that would lead to the Great Society, the most active domestic program since FDR’s New Deal.

The only other president with combined congressional experience of more than 20 years was James Buchanan from Pennsylvania, who served in the House of Representatives (1821-1831), including being chairman of the Judiciary Committee in his last two years; and in the senate (1834-1845).  Despite his years in congress, as well as in appointed positions in government, sadly he failed to meet the challenge of the pre-Civil War years and is seen as a presidential failure, usually at or near the bottom of rankings of presidents by scholars.

Additionally, 4 other presidents served between 12 and 18 years in congress, and held important leadership positions and had prominent roles.

James A. Garfield from Ohio served nearly 18 years in the House of Representatives (1863-1880) before being elected as the only president to go directly from that chamber to the presidency, but sadly was assassinated within six months of taking the oath.  Garfield played a leading role in the House, and was House Appropriations Committee Chairman from 1871-1875, one of the most crucial committees in the Reconstruction period.  He was at the center of the many political controversies of the tumultuous times after the Civil War.

James K. Polk from Tennessee served 14 years in the House of Representatives (1825-1839), and was the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee (1833-1835), before being the only president to have held the position of Speaker of the House (1835-1839). He later served one very active term as president (1845-1849), doubling the territory of the United States through diplomacy with Great Britain and war with Mexico.

William McKinley from Ohio served 13 years in the House of Representatives (1877-1884, 1885-1891), including being chairman of the Ways and Means Committee (1889-1891), and having a national leadership role as the sponsor of the McKinley Tariff of 1890.  He then served as president for four and a half years before being assassinated in September 1901. He did accomplish the gaining of territory by war with Spain and the annexation of Hawaii.

Finally, John Quincy Adams from Massachusetts, after having earlier served in the US Senate (1803-1808), in diplomatic posts, and as Secretary of State under James Monroe before his one term in the presidency (1825-1829), became the only president to be elected to the House of Representatives after his term, serving for 17 years (1831-1848).  With his stature and outspoken nature, Adams became engaged in controversies over domestic and foreign policy under presidents Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, and James K. Polk, most notably on his opposition to slavery and the Mexican War.  While he had no leadership position as the other seven presidents had in Congress, his unique role as a former president gave him prominence unmatched in American history.

So in conclusion, Joe Biden comes into the presidency with a track record unmatched in many ways, and one of only 8 presidents to have had extensive experience on Capitol Hill.  Whether that will give him an edge in accomplishing his goals and dealing with greatest crises comparable to those faced by Barack Obama, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, is something that only time will tell, with the nation hoping for the best in a difficult time.

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