Chain Letter

The Speaker’s Lobby: Chain Letter

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

18 October 2009

A four-year-old boy in the tony Washington, DC suburb of Potomac, MD woke up from his nap at Montessori school.

And then promptly gave it to his classmate.

His classmate then took it home. She leafed through the book “Where the Wild Things Are.”

A few days later, she gave it to her nanny.

Later in the week, the nanny went for drinks at the Liberty Tavern in Arlington, VA. She hobnobbed with young professionals and sipped pinot noir.

The nanny then left them with a cocktail far more potent than the ones they were nursing at the bar.

One of the young professionals went to work two days later at a big law firm on K Street in downtown Washington. She chatted over coffee in the break room with a third-year-associate at the firm.

And then she gave it to him.

After he finished his coffee, the associate then went upstairs to the law firm’s government relations shop and handed his boss a proposal he finished the night before.

But that’s not all he gave him.

Later that week, the boss took the proposal the young associate drafted and tucked it into his attaché case. He had to run up to Capitol Hill for a meeting in the Dirksen Senate Office Building with staffers from the Banking Committee. The lobbyist boss then hailed a Diamond Cab on K Street. The cabbie drove up Constitution Avenue and dropped the lobbyist off by the Dirksen building. The lobbyist passed him a ten for a tip.

The cabbie appreciated the lobbyist’s generosity.

But he got more than he bargained for. 

The cabbie then executed an illegal U-turn next and immediately picked up another fare. Another lobbyist sprinted out of Dirksen. She fought her high heels with every step. She was running late for meeting across Capitol Hill in the Rayburn House Office Building. The cabbie pressed the ten in his right palm against the steering wheel as he drove the second lobbyist past the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress and turned right on Independence Avenue. He dropped the second lobbyist off across from Rayburn and made change with the ten.

But that wasn’t the entire extent of their transaction.

The lobbyist then entered the Rayburn building. She unpacked her keys and BlackBerry and prepared to go through the metal detectors.

Not used to the drill of passing through security in Washington, a family of tourists from Montana fumbled with their things as they approached the Magnetometer. The mother dropped her cell phone twice as she took off her coat and tried to organize everything on the conveyer belt to be X-rayed. The lobbyist standing behind her grew impatient. But graciously reached down to hand the flustered woman her cell phone.

But that’s not all the lobbyist handed her.

The Montana family spent a few days in Washington. They visited the Smithsonian, traipsed through Arlington National Cemetery and dined at the Old Ebbitt Grill. They headed back to Capitol Hill on the last day of their tour to get a family picture from the terrace of the Cannon House Office Building. The sky was powder blue that morning. The mother thought the perfect way to end their trip was to grab a snapshot of the family with the Capitol dome looming in the background.

Capitol Hill bustled that morning. But the mother coaxed a kind aide from the House Budget Committee to take their picture. She handed the aide her Nikon D90 digital camera.

Along with a little something for his troubles.

The aide took the “little something” back to his committee. And a few days later, he shared it  with most of his colleagues on both the majority and minority sides.

The committee staff then flanked out around Capitol Hill.

One aide gave it to a House page. Who promptly gave it to three other pages. Who then delivered it along with a set of documents to the House Appropriations Committee.

The aides on the Appropriations Committee then took it into the Speaker’s Lobby with them, just off the House floor.

There, it skipped from a stenographer to a bevy of lawmakers confabbing in the well of the House chamber during a vote on a Motion to Recommit.

One of the Congressmen took it with him to the House gym in the Rayburn building for a weekly basketball game.

It was a  vigorous contest. Drops of sweat dripped from the lawmakers’ arms and foreheads and onto the hardwood court. And the Congressman who received it on the House floor gave it to another lawmaker when they both hit the court hard going up for a rebound. The second Congressman landed in a pool of the first lawmaker’s sweat.

That Congressman was then assigned to a House-Senate Conference Committee. 

And he passed it along to three senators as they met in room HC-5 of the Capitol, drafting the final version of a bill.

One of the senators gave it to a U.S. Capitol Police officer working the door of the Hart Senate Office Building. Who then gave it to her sergeant. Who then gave it to a custodian who worked the overnight shift in the building.

The custodian then gave it to a journalist who he always saw fetching a snack out of a vending machine in the basement of the Hart building.

Who then gave it to a horde of other journalists as they pressed around Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) when he spoke to reporters at the traditional, Tuesday stakeout in the Ohio Clock Corridor, just outside the Senate chamber.

One of the journalists then went back to the House side where she worked in the Radio-TV Gallery on the third floor of the Capitol. And a couple of days later, she sat in the back of a hearing room in the Rayburn building. The reporter talked with a woman who handled press for a California lawmaker.

The chatter was idle. But something else was rather active.

The California press secretary then walked back to her office. A day later, she spoke with her intern, who was just in her second week on the job.

“What are you working on this morning?” the press secretary asked the intern.

“The chief of staff asked me to sort through the mail first. Do you need help?”

“I do,” answered the press secretary.

“Some of this mail is just so weird,” groaned the intern. “Look at this.”

The intern handed the press secretary a letter. It was single-spaced and ran five entire pages, front-and-back. The font looked like it originated from an old, manual Underwood typewriter. The press secretary thought it had been Xeroxed because the typeset was crooked on a couple of pages. The letter was addressed to every member of Congress, the New York Times, the Washington Post,  National Public Radio, FOX News, Huffington Post and TMZ.

“Oh, it’s a chain letter,” the press secretary announced.

The intern sighed.

“I don’t know why people bother to send this crazy stuff. Everyone knows chain letters don’t work,” the intern said. “Now what did you need me to do for you?”

The press secretary put the chain letter down.

“Tell you what. Finish sorting through the mail first,” the press secretary said, “And then I’ll give you something.”

But in fact, she already had.


Of course, the above tale is fiction. But it is an accurate representation of how the H1N1 virus could spread across Capitol Hill.

The halls of Congress are a virtual Petri dish for the spread of the flu.

Aides and lawmakers are stuffed together in tiny offices. The entire Congressional campus is linked underground by a maze of tunnels. People breathe the same air. Everyone pushes the same buttons for the elevators and holds the same door handles. They dine in the same cafeterias. And of course, shaking hands is the coin of the realm on Capitol Hill.

It’s ironic that while health care reform is the preeminent debate in Congress, most of the chatter on Capitol Hill is about H1N1.

The Senate quarantined several pages in July after they came down with flu-like symptoms. Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terry Gainer declared that they “most likely have influenza, quite possibly the H1N1 virus.”

It’s easy to be reminded of the threat. Congressional officials have posted dozens of hand sanitizer machines all around the Capitol and in the House and Senate office buildings. Some machines are used so frequently that they’re often out of sanitizer.

Perhaps the best advice came back in April when a reporter asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) about the potential for a pandemic flu the U.S. hasn’t seen since 1918.

“Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands,” admonished Pelosi.

The advice you’d expect from a woman who has five children and seven grandchildren.

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

– The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais of the House chamber. Lawmakers, reporters and aides often confer there during votes on the floor.