On Tuesday night, the House sergeant at arms invaded American living rooms when he introduced President Obama before the State of the Union address. With protruding ears and an angular jaw, Paul D. Irving looked the part: a flinty, hard-boiled officer of the peace.
Sworn in last week, Irving is something of an anomaly—he and his predecessor, Bill Livingood, are the only law-enforcement professionals to hold the position. Most recently a security consultant for Command Consulting Group, Irving spent 25 years in the Secret Service, rising to a supervisory role on the Presidential Protective Detail and later serving as the agency’s deputy assistant director for congressional affairs and assistant director for government and public affairs.
Before retiring in 2008, he was loaned to the Executive Office of the President to help expand the Homeland Security Department. Irving declined a request for an interview.
The Office of the Sergeant at Arms—which dates to 1789, when the House of Representatives met for the first time in New York City—is something of an anachronism. Part hall monitor and part factotum, the sergeant at arms serves at the pleasure of the House speaker, policing behavior on the chamber floor and deputizing “officers … to arrest [truant] Members for whom no sufficient excuse is made,” according to the House Rules for the 112th Congress.
With a 46-inch ceremonial mace and instructions to monitor the “comportment” of representatives, the sergeant at arms’ job is somewhere between disciplinarian and sinecure.
He also performs a range of administrative functions, some more glamorous than others. When he is not wrangling lawmakers, the sergeant at arms is expected to arrange funerals, manage parking facilities, and issue identification to members and staff. These tasks are a far cry from the original position, which was envisioned as a bulwark against trespasses by the executive.
“The Founders’ view of legislatures is that they are extremely vulnerable, and they need to develop a mechanism that will shield them from the executive, as well as the type of chaos that can emerge in a legislative chamber,” said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “For them, it was a matter of real, honest-to-goodness survival.”
The sergeant at arms is actually an Anglo institution that has its roots in a 17th-century act of defiance by the English Parliament against King Charles I. In modern times, the House of Commons’ “serjeant at arms”—who is responsible for maintaining order in that refractory chamber—wields the equivalent of an oversized scepter. Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, the Australian “serjeant at arms” is vested with a 17-pound, silver gilt mace and is required to wear silver-buckled shoes, stockings, knee breeches, a waistcoat, white gloves, and a ceremonial sword.
In the Senate, the sergeant at arms is almost identical to his House counterpart, except for the accessory—a gavel, not a mace. He also doubles as the doorkeeper, a position created in 1789 to keep intruders out and lawmakers in. According to the Senate website, “the Office of Doorkeeper was established to address the single most pressing problem confronting the Senate at its birth—its inability to keep a majority of members in the Capitol long enough to organize and begin the business of government.”
One reason the House and Senate sergeants at arms have endured since the 18th century is that both chambers require constant supervision. The most notorious example of congressmen behaving badly took place on May 22, 1856, when Rep. Preston Brooks, D-S.C., thrashed Sen. Charles Sumner, R-Mass., with a gold-tipped wooden cane. When his weapon shattered, Brooks took up one of the fragments and cudgeled the abolitionist until he was unconscious. He then strode out of the chamber unmolested, as his colleagues gaped at the scene.
In the intervening decades, Congress has mellowed—or been “sanitized,” in the words of MIT’s Stewart—but boorish and untoward behavior is still in evidence, such as when Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., harangued Obama during a 2009 address to Congress. Moreover, modern technology has added to the need for a strict parental figure.
Per the House rules for the 112th Congress: “A person on the floor of the House may not … use a mobile electronic device that impairs decorum. The Sergeant-at-Arms is charged with the strict enforcement of this clause.”
This article appears in the Jan. 25, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.