The Witness

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In September of 1975 I was appointed minority counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. I was thirty-four years old and had previously served as a legislative assistant to Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott. Our committee consisted of five Democrats and three Republicans. The Republican members were Mark Hatfield from Oregon, Bob Griffin from Michigan, and Hugh Scott from Pennsylvania. The committee was chaired by the senior Democrat, Howard Cannon of Nevada.

Rules and Administration was a catchall committee having jurisdiction over such disparate areas as Senate office space, the Botanic Gardens, the Library of Congress, and, oddly enough, the federal election law. It was the proposed 1976 amendment to this law that almost cost me my job.

The committee was holding hearings on this amendment in our hearing room in the Russell Office Building, then known simply as the Old Senate Office Building. An ornate, beautiful, and high-ceilinged room, once home to the Senate Commerce Committee, it could accommodate fifty to sixty people if the subject matter before the committee aroused any great interest.

That was not the case on the day of my near undoing. In addition to the five or six sitting committee members, there were approximately twenty staff members, a few journalists, and several curious tourists in attendance. Most of the staff members sat in front of the raised and curved committee table. Others sat immediately behind their senators, waiting patiently for a whispered directive, request, or instruction. I sat behind our ranking member, Mark Hatfield.

The only witness to testify that day was Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, a cosponsor of the bill. Since most, if not all, of the committee members supported the amendment, Senator Kennedy’s remarks would be no more than icing on an alreadybaked cake. Midway through his prepared text the bell on the legislative clock in the room rang, indicating that a vote was about to take place on the floor of the Senate. The Russell Office Building was located a long stone’s throw from the Capitol. Senator Cannon apologetically interrupted Senator Kennedy and announced a twenty-minute recess, which would allow the committee members enough time to proceed to the Capitol to vote.

The room emptied quickly of all senators, including Kennedy. Moving from my assigned seat and lowering myself into Senator Cannon’s chair, I gaveled, regained the staffers’ attention, and launched into my Western Pennsylvanian imitation of Kennedy’s Boston accent. After an initial confused silence my audience jumped right in, firing questions and insults as fast as I could drop my r ’s and widen my a ’s. I was enjoying myself immensely when suddenly my audience fell quiet. I continued chirping away. Finally I noticed our chief of staff making the international sign of impending doom: a finger drawn across the throat. A few seconds elapsed before I realized that the throat to which he alluded was my own.

Apparently Senator Kennedy had not voted but had been caught up in conversation outside in the corridor and then had drifted back to the staff offices behind the committee room. He was at that moment standing behind me, observing my performance. Visions of my wife and two infant daughters, soon to be destitute, flashed through my mind. In those days the mere allegation that a staffer was “personally obnoxious” was sufficient grounds for dismissal, and I had no doubt that a “sincerely regret” letter from Mark Hatfield was only a day away.

As I rose, turned, and started to mumble a feeble and terror-inspired apology, the senator raised his hand, grinned, and said in a much better Kennedy accent ,than my own, “Actually, you sounded more like Bobby than me.”