For many years, Rep. Jack Murtha sat in the same seat in a far corner of the House floor on the Democratic side. He was popular, respected, and sometimes feared because of his historic influence on appropriations bills. There are no assigned seats on the House floor. But Jack, who died in 2010, was different: Everyone knew that was his chair. More-junior colleagues always gathered around to kiss up to him, knowing his influence on the appropriations process.
One day in the fall of 2005, I arrived on the floor early for a vote and plopped down in Jack's seat. His regular groupies—colleagues from his home state of Pennsylvania, along with others who had appropriations interests—swarmed around me like a pack of dogs, warning me about Jack's imminent arrival. They were serious. I told them to get lost. They retorted that I'd be really sorry if I didn't move—after all, no one sat in Jack's chair. A few minutes later, Jack walked in from the Speaker's Lobby and bowed over laughing at the scene. He had been in on the joke the whole time. I told him that his groupies were about ready to kick my butt on his behalf. For their part, the groupies weren't amused. They took their roles seriously—and to them, I was just a Republican who didn't understand the culture of that corner of Congress.
When most Americans think of the House floor, they probably imagine a stodgy, formal place. But the truth is, the personalities in Congress make it lively and full of energy. I served in Congress for 14 years, and most members were, in my experience, creatures of habit on the floor. Cliques would gather in their regular spots to share laughs; needy members were always chasing those in the leadership to whine about why their amendments weren't included in a bill; others were loners who would sit looking pensive, interacting very little with their peers. The floor staff, always upbeat, expertly handled the complex egos of members.
Trips to the floor always began with bells sounding in every building, signaling the beginning of a vote. The phrase "time to go vote" would be heard everywhere on the Hill—to such an extent that it was almost a laugh line in hearing rooms and crowded elevators.
A senior member once told me the story of a colleague in his 80s who moved slowly and didn't do much anymore except cast votes. But even when he was dozing off, if he heard the bells, he'd perk up, say "time to go vote," and head to the floor. One day, as the tale goes, some younger members were riding in the elevator with him and inconspicuously pushed the emergency-bell button to see if he would react. Without hesitation, the older member immediately announced to the whole elevator, "Time to go vote!" and headed to the floor. His colleagues in the elevator could hardly contain their laughter.
I always looked forward to seeing the jokesters on the floor. The funniest in my time was Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, who frequently had new jokes about the Cajun characters Boudreaux and Thibodaux. (Example: One day Boudreaux asked Thibodaux, "If I slept with your wife, would that make us family?" Without hesitation Thibodaux answers, "No, but it would make us even.") Half a dozen members were often gathered around Billy bursting with laughter. I remember once hearing Billy's punch line, roaring with laughter, and wondering what the visitors in the gallery would think if they knew what we were discussing.
The House floor was a sanctuary. You could catch up with your colleagues or hear the latest gossip without the risk of being overheard by the media.
Cliques on the floor generally formed based on philosophy. The Blue Dog Democrats would sit close to the center aisle toward the back of the room. Members of the Hispanic Caucus tended to congregate; so did hard-core conservatives. At one point, I was part of a group of four Texans who sat together. One year, a freshman tried to crash the group. We gave him the evil eye. All in good fun, but the point was still made.
Passing the time like this was generally accepted because so many votes are about naming post offices, or statements of support for world peace, or honoring some high school championship. Voting on major legislation—immigration reform, tax reform, regulatory reform—is rare. Those are the times when the media is crammed into the gallery, watching every move and every discussion on the floor. On those occasions, conversations with House leadership and committee chairs are intense, especially if there is still time for someone's amendment to be included. I was fortunate to chair a major appropriations subcommittee for six years. Each year, I prepared to manage the bill on the floor and ensure we had enough votes to pass it. We never failed, but it was because we tried to know every House member. They were like members of your family, each with a different personality and needs.
When votes concluded, members would sometimes linger on the floor longer than needed. I did that every once in a while, because you could sit there alone, reflecting on the next big challenge—or just rest. The House floor was a sanctuary. Staff couldn't stick memos in your face or press you to review the five speeches you were obligated to give in the next three days. You could catch up with your colleagues or hear the latest gossip without the risk of being overheard by the media.
Eventually, however, we would all head back to our offices for meetings on the issues: health care, national security, or the next election. All important—but a long way from the unique space that was the House floor.
Henry Bonilla was a Republican congressman from Texas from 1993 to 2007. He is currently a partner at The Normandy Group.
This article appears in the June 21, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Floor.