The Cliques of the House Floor

The morning sun begins to rise in front of the U.S. Capitol.
National Journal
Henry Bonilla
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Henry Bonilla
June 18, 2014, 4 p.m.

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.

(Daniel Za­lkus)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.

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