The House Democratic cloakroom is an office, refectory, and clubhouse. One side of the chamber is occupied by 13 phone booths (festooned with holiday decorations), and the other by several rows of plush armchairs. In the middle is a kitchen and snack bar, which dispenses hot dogs and tuna-fish sandwiches to members in between votes.
“It’s a place of business,” said Robert Fischer Jr., the cloakroom’s new manager. “My job is to make sure that members are able to do what they want to do. If they want to eat lunch, they can eat lunch. If they want to prepare for a speech that they’re about to give on the floor, they can do that, as well. I want people to be comfortable in there.”
The Democratic cloakroom is only open to members and their top aides, which makes it a kind of sanctuary for lawmakers used to being accosted by legions of reporters in the halls of the Capitol. At any given time, dozens of members may be milling around, shaking hands, reading, and rehearsing speeches within the confines of the L-shaped space. Depending on floor activity, hundreds of Democrats may be in and out of the cloakroom within a 30-minute period.
When not plying members with snacks, Fischer monitors floor operations and notifies lawmakers of upcoming votes. Suspended over Fischer’s desk is a placard with the words: “Guestimate for last vote.” Before the advent of C-SPAN, the cloakroom was a clearinghouse for information related to legislative activity.
“We staff the members,” Fischer said. “When they come over here, they don’t have staff assistants, legislative assistants, legislative directors…. We try to make it easier for them, given how unpredictable floor operations can be.”
Republicans are allowed in the Democratic cloakroom — but they generally keep away unless they are looking for a Democratic colleague.
Fischer, 49, grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where his father was a city firefighter for 32 years. He studied English at the State University of New York (Geneseo) and then was hired by the Buffalo Sabres professional hockey team, where Fischer conducted interviews in the locker room and wrote player profiles for the franchise’s in-house magazine. He stayed with the team for about a year — and never missed a game.
In the spring of 1987, Fischer was given a tour of the Capitol by then-House Doorkeeper James Molloy, a fellow Buffalo native and family friend. Over lunch that same day, Molloy offered him a job. “It was literally that simple,” Fischer said.
A year later, Fischer became an assistant to the House sergeant at arms, which entailed “a lot of meet-and-greets” with visiting dignitaries and movie stars, he said. In 1993, Fischer was named assistant manager of the House Democratic cloakroom by then-Speaker Thomas Foley. In the ensuing years, he was on hand for 21 consecutive State of the Union addresses and seven presidential inaugurations.
One of the most memorable moments in Fischer’s tenure came in January 2007, when Nancy Pelosi became the first woman to ascend to the speakership. “I’m a father with two daughters,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of change over the last 20 years, but from the view that I have, it’s still amazing. I doubt that there will ever be another moment in time within my employment in the House where something that huge will happen.”
Fischer is married with three children and lives in Fairfax, Va.
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