The Speaker’s Lobby: No Way To Start a Year

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

16 January 2010

Around 12:35 pm Friday, House of Representatives Chaplain Fr. Daniel Coughlin stared at the crush of humanity that squeezed into St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Capitol Hill. Among the assembled were scores of lawmakers. Former Members of Congress. Leading House and Senate aides from both parties. Representatives from the White House. And journalists.

And then Coughlin started his homily.

“This isn’t any way to start a year,” he said.

Coughlin’s right. It isn’t any way to start a year, because the assembled gathered in the church to pay their final respects to Paula Nowakowski. Nowakowski was Chief of Staff and longtime confidant of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH). And Nowakowski died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 46.

The stories of Nowakowski’s work ethic, devotion to Boehner, affection for Ronald Reagan and love for the House of Representatives are legendary. So too are tales of her “wicked” sense of humor and passion for the Detroit Red Wings. And like legions of people on Capitol Hill, Paula Nowakowski worked awfully hard.

It isn’t any way to start a year. Because it wasn’t any way to end a year, either.

It wasn’t any way to end a year because of the near-round-the-clock hours the House put in throughout the fall on the health care reform bill. It culminated in passing the legislation at 11:18 pm on a Saturday night in November. That on the heels of the most rancorous, stressful, hateful town hall meetings imaginable that commandeered the airwaves in August.

By late fall, the Senate charged through a series of extraordinary weekend sessions. One after the other. Voting well after the witching hour. Voting just before the sun came up. Senators risking life and limb to make it to the Capitol to vote at seven in the morning on a Saturday in the middle of the biggest blizzard to hit Washington in decades. The piece de resistance came in a pre-dawn vote on Christmas Eve morning to finally approve the health care reform bill.

Their holiday plans already in shambles, lawmakers and aides tried to escape Washington, at least physically, knowing full-well they’d be on conference calls and BlackBerries throughout the break.

And then on Christmas Day, just as they sat down to fill their plates with Virginia ham, dressing and sweet potatoes, an attempted terrorist attack on an airliner bound for Detroit fractured their dinner plans and sent everyone scurrying back to their PDA’s.

This isn’t any way to live.

And I haven’t even talked about the hours expended early last year on the stimulus bill or the climate package. Two House committees worked throughout the night to prepare their versions of the climate package in the spring.

Frank Sinatra wanted to wake up in a city that never sleeps. Tell Ol’ Blue Eyes he’s 200 miles too far north. Don’t believe in global warming? They’ve burned enough midnight oil around the Capitol to puncture the ozone layer above the polar ice caps. College students who never crack the book until they cram all-night before the final exam catch more winks than this outfit.

You thought it was going to be any easier in 2010? The House Democratic leadership squad held an EIGHT HOUR meeting at the White House on health care on Wednesday. On Thursday, the same team met with President Obama for several hours, broke for a couple of hours so the president could speak to rank-and-file House Democrats on Capitol Hill. And then returned to the White House for a 9 pm huddle that ran until nearly 1:30 am Friday.

Americans complain about Congress all the time. They moan about corruption. The deal-making. The spinning. But it doesn’t matter if your politics favors Boehner or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Whether you are a Democrat or Republican. Whether you’re for health care reform or not. The American taxpayer gets its money’s worth in Congress. From the speaker down to the lowliest intern, there isn’t group of people who works longer and harder than the workforce that populates Capitol Hill.

Cynics may crow about “Washington” and the people here. But that’s a fallacy. The people who come to work in Washington are a reflection of America. They come from New York City and Cape Cod. Rural Kentucky. Dallas. Small towns in northern Alabama. Seattle. And in the case of Paula Nowakowski, suburban Detroit, a region devastated by the economy and sagging automobile industry.

These aides represent a patchwork quilt of America. And regardless of ideology, most come to make a difference. Like Paula Nowakowski.

They dedicate their lives to public service. Even if it has consequences for them. And it’s not just the hours. They eat terribly. Don’t hit the gym. They smoke. They travel constantly and are always fighting jet-lag. It’s ironic that amid the health care debate, some of them wonder why the rest of the population doesn’t take better care of themselves.

I’m always astonished at what lawmakers and aides I can reach on the phone and via e-mail at all times of the day and night. I’ve periodically phoned an office in the dead of night just to leave a message and found myself surprised when the staffer or sometimes even the lawmaker themselves answers the phone. I’ve e-mailed questions to people in the middle of the night, never expecting an answer until the morning. Then been shocked when I get responses at 1:14 and 3:55 am.

At Paula Nowakowski’s funeral, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) alluded to how he was up at 4:20 am recently to write something and e-mailed her. Much to his surprise, he got an immediate response. So he messaged Nowakowski back. And got another e-mail from her. So after a few rounds of this, Gingrich asked Nowakowski if they were both crazy. She responded yes. But that wasn’t this “fun?”

The church swelled with laughter.

In the past week, those who knew Nowakowski repeatedly described her as a “happy warrior.” She was. That’s because even though she was serious about her work, she also relished it. And made it enjoyable for the people around her. It’s no coincidence that Boehner is known for having one of the best, longest-serving and most-dedicated teams in Washington.

And that’s the trick on Capitol Hill. The work is arduous. The stress is high. And the demands extraordinary. So you have to make it fun.

But many don’t.

In the past year, I’ve probably spent exhaustive hours staking out Congressional offices while lawmakers negotiate inside on big issues like the stimulus bill, climate change and now health care reform. I’ve watched the people come and go from those sessions. And I always check out the body language. Honestly, I’ve never seen people as sleep-deprived and stressed out. You can see it in their eyes. Hear it in their voices. It went on all last year. And now with the health care reform package again coming to the fore, it’s happening all over again.

It was no way to end a year. And no way to start one, either. 

During his homily Friday, Fr. Coughlin encouraged those who toil on Capitol Hill to find “the eye of the storm.” And Coughlin suggested that many could find that “eye” in Jesus Christ. 

Like the permanent storm on Jupiter, a perpetual tempest lashes Capitol Hill. And with health care reform back for another round, this violent sea is inescapable. Unless those on Capitol Hill can find their way to the hurricane’s eye.

The “eye” could take different forms for many people. Going home early. Doing yoga. Prayer and mediatation. Switching off the BlackBerry. But folks had better take shelter. I checked the Farmer’s Almanac. And the political forecast on Capitol Hill for 2010 could be even more tornadic than last year.

– 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.

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