The Speaker’s Lobby

The Speaker's LobbyEssay: The Speaker’s Lobby
By: Chad Pergram, FOX News
27 February 2009

Baseball great and Zen master Yogi Berra once proclaimed you can see a lot by watching. And that’s certainly the way things work on Capitol Hill.

I’m Fox’s eyes and ears at the Capitol, primarily for the House of Representatives. If it involves the House or one of its Members, you can bet I’m there. And the best way to know what’s happening in Congress is to just keep your eyes open.

I get my best information by just watching. I spend a lot of my time trolling around the hallways, looking for people, taking the temperature. You never know who you’re going to run into. Or what you’re going to see. And if you’re plugged in, you can glean a lot of information.

One night a few years ago I could tell a bill was doomed just by watching how fast a particular Congressman walked out of the House chamber, across the Statuary Hall in the Capitol and into the Speaker’s Office. And sure enough, the bill was in trouble and we were there all night.

But I gather some of my best intelligence in the Speaker’s Lobby.

You’ve probably never heard of it if you don’t work on Capitol Hill. But the Lobby is a hub of power and information when the House is in session. Kind of like a small town barber shop where cutting hair is only a front for gossip and spinning yarns.

And the Speaker’s Lobby is where I spend much of each workday. Just watching.

Physically, the Lobby’s located just behind the dais in the House of Representatives’ chamber. If you want an accurate depiction of the Lobby, check out “Charlie Wilson’s War.” In the movie, Tom Hanks’ character talks with aides in the Speaker’s Lobby, a long ornate hallway decorated with paintings of former Speakers of the House.

Big, thick chairs and benches align the walls. In winter, the smell of firewood wafts through the Lobby as staff build crackling fires in the bipartisan fireplaces located there. One fireplace heats the Democratic side of the lobby. The other keeps the Republicans toasty.

But the Speaker’s Lobby is much more. Think of it as a hotel lounge, minus the mixed drinks and Steinway piano. When buzzers sound throughout the Capitol complex signaling a series of votes on the House floor, the Speaker’s Lobby becomes the epicenter.

Nearly all lawmakers rubber into the chamber to vote. They take voting and getting to the chamber very seriously. And inevitably, many Representatives drift out into the Speaker’s Lobby. Reporters and aides crowd the Speaker’s Lobby to try to snare a Member of Congress they want to catch up with.

During votes, a lot of lawmakers filter out into the Lobby to chat with one another. They engage in passionate discussions about college football, grouse about their golf game or plot political strategy. They talk with one another about bills they’re trying to move on the floor. Some like Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Al Green (D-TX) roam the Lobby with cell phones affixed to their ears. Over in one corner, Reps. Rick Boucher (D-VA) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) recline in high-backed chairs and leaf through the New York Times or Roll Call.

And until 2007, if you were searching for Washington’s proverbial “smoke-filled room,” this was it. Lawmakers used to be allowed to smoke in the Speaker’s Lobby. But Democrats banned smoking in the Lobby when they won control of the House.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) is arguably the biggest smoker in Congress. In fact during debate last year to grant the Food and Drug Administration regulatory control over cigarettes, Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) warned his Ohio colleague that Boehner’s smoking would eventually kill him.

“The Minority Leader is going to be amongst the next to die,” predicted Dingell. “He is committing suicide every time he puffs on one of those.”

Rep. Howard Coble (R-NC) once told a colleague of mine he had never seen anyone enjoy a cigarette quite like Boehner. “He inhales it all the way down to his toenails,” said Coble, who represents tobacco country.

Remember how on “Peanuts” a Tunisian sandstorm always accompanied the character Pig-Pen when he arrived on the scene? That used to be the case in the Speaker’s Lobby with the Republican Leader.

A near-perpetual nebula of cigarette smoke hung in a rear-corner of the Speaker’s Lobby when Boehner was around, cuffing one of his signature Barclay’s. And before the Democratic-smoking ban, Boehner would hold court there with fellow smokers Reps. Mike Simpson (R-ID) Tom Latham (R-IA) and Thad McCotter (R-MI).

Boehner used the Speaker’s Lobby like an old political boss, chatting about legislation and politics over a smoke in the back.. Many credit Boehner’s informal sessions with fellow Representatives in the Speaker’s Lobby as a method he used to build his political base and rise to become the most-powerful House Republican.

But there’s another power center in the Speaker’s Lobby.

Lawmakers can be on the floor or Speaker’s Lobby for up to an hour-and-a-half when the House signals a series of votes. Inevitably nature calls. A “Members Only” men’s room is located just off to the side of the Speaker’s Lobby on the Republican side. And if Members of Congress or reporters are trying to track down a certain elusive legislator, it’s a good bet to just hang outside the men’s room door. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) once told me he didn’t mind stopping to chat about military affairs for a few minutes outside the restroom. But Skelton admonished me that I should never “get a man going in.” Sage advice from the dean of Missouri’s Congressional delegation. And if I know a lawmaker is in the men’s room, I always politely wait outside until he comes out and never try to intercept him going in.

But the men’s room is more than just a restroom. On the 1970s hit TV comedy “Happy Days,” greaser Fonzie (played by Henry Winkler) always summoned his pals back to men’s room at Al’s soda shop for a meeting. Fonzie declared that the restroom was his “office.”

Well, the restroom just off the Speaker’s Lobby kind of serves the same purpose for Members of Congress. You’d be surprised how much business lawmakers accomplish in there. More than once I’ve seen two lawmakers at loggerheads over legislation go in and come out with a handshake agreement.

I have a theory about the skepticism of Americans about Congress and politics. People grow cynical because they don’t understand how the process works. They don’t get to see how or why the deals are negotiated behind closed doors. But it’s my experience that people are less suspect when you open a window for them to see the inside game. They might not like what they observe. But at least now they understand the methods behind the madness.

That’s my goal with this column: lift the dome off the Capitol, let people peer inside and see how the government’s gearboxes work.

And I hope you’ll join me regularly on my trolls through “The Speaker’s Lobby.”

– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.