By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009
The Whisper Brigade assembles itself on stackable plastic chairs, arranged in rows behind the senators.
Sixty-three ear-side seats.
The 23 senators, in their cushy leather swivel-thrones, postulate into microphones, gnashing over the details of this epic health-care bill consuming Washington, now deep into Week 2 and dragging into the longest Senate Finance Committee set-to in 15 years. The whisperers have their say, but almost exclusively into the senators' ears. Prompting, hinting, tipping -- a parallel dialogue, public speaker to private thinker, strictly off-mike.
There's Bill Dauster, all lanky arms and legs, stooping so low his tie drags across the left shoulder of the chairman, Max Baucus of Montana. There's Mark Hayes saying something that makes Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley's eyebrow arch.
That's D-a-u-s-t-e-r and H-a-y-e-s, and Liz Fowler and Kate Spaziani, and Jocelyn Moore, too. Not necessarily marquee names outside the capital, but outsize players in the inside game -- an exercise in fine-print and lawyerly know-how, late-night prep sessions and numbing details. (The committee opened proceedings last week with 564 amendments to contemplate!)
In this city of aides, the split goes like this: 535 members of Congress out front; more than 10,000 staffers in back. (This being staffer culture, who gets counted as "staffer" is itself intensely debated.) The many organize themselves to serve the few. Unwritten rules and traditions have evolved and they have one theme: deference.
Yet sometimes, when the city's attention is drawn to a single room, as it is right now, the deferential get nudged, whether or not they like it, into view. They're the ones in the upper corners of the television screen, when the camera zooms in to Washington's high-stakes legislative obsession of the moment. The ones leaning forward. The ones at the top of the staffer organizational charts. The ones with all the degrees -- Dauster's a lawyer -- and, in some cases, the ones with all the interesting résumés -- Spaziani, Sen. Kent Conrad's senior health policy aide, is a former health-care lobbyist, and Fowler gets knocked around a bit in the blogosphere because she was a public policy VP for the insurance giant WellPoint before becoming Baucus's senior counsel.
This can be an uncomfortable setting for the backstage operators to become faces du jour. With some notable exceptions, most staffers are doing everything they can to stay off camera. It's the preferred ethos of the Washington staffer -- do the homework, don't seek the glory . . . or else.
In other words, never ever upstage the boss.
Russ Sullivan, the Finance Committee's Democratic staff director, goes so far as to train staffers how to disappear when the full Senate meets in chamber. He has mapped what he calls "safe spots," the margins where a staffer can chill without being seen by the camera.
But there's no hiding in Hart 216, focal point for the past two weeks of all things single-payer, public option and employer mandate. In the hearing rooms, the camera sees all. Mostly it sees faces striving to affect no emotion, to convey no hint of opinion, attitude, pique or glee. Blank is best.
Still, late one night, the camera sees Dauster mouthing lines in Baucus's ear, almost Cyrano de Bergerac-style. It sees Moore leaping out of her seat when Sen. Jay Rockefeller bellows "not true" in response to Sen. Jeff Bingaman's assertion that Rockefeller's public-option health plan has a government administrator. A tap on the shoulder by Moore. A quick whisper, and Rockefeller is suddenly pivoting. Well, "technically," there is an administrator, he acknowledges.
Maybe that's why a seemingly grateful Rockefeller gets all worked up when talking about Moore and the rest of his staff, calling them "monumental and transcendental" during a quick chat in the hallway after his public-option amendment was defeated.
"The staff is the whole ballgame," Rockefeller insists.
Moore, standing a respectful couple steps away, just smiles. She's clamping her lips together so tightly -- as if she's afraid a stray word might escape without her catching it in time. Officially, if there was any doubt, she's got nothing to say.
No way is she going to upstage the boss, even if it looks to all the world like she probably saved him only a few minutes before.
Just in case that rule wasn't crystal clear, some senators are happy to give a reminder. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who also saw his own public-option proposal shot down moments earlier, says his staff does "a great job" passing notes and whispering in his ear. "But most of what I say is just spontaneous."
And there's the tricky balance for the whispering-aide set. Keep the boss up to date. Make sure the senator gets a reliable vote count, the inside skinny, the best analysis of the bill's minutiae, the implications of other senators' amendments, the lowdown on the constituent calls coming into the office. But be discreet; don't do anything to suggest you're the brains behind the power.
Still, one can't help but wonder, sometimes, if the smartest people in the room aren't the ones being addressed as senators but the whisperers behind them.
"You don't want to be talking in your boss's ear every second," says Sheila Burke, a former deputy staff director of the Finance Committee and chief of staff for former senator Bob Dole of Kansas. "You don't want your boss to look like a puppet."
Ah, but it's not such a bad thing for the aide to be snapped talking in the ear of the powerful. Those images are the currency of status in this city, living perpetually on the walls of Capitol Hill homes and big corner offices, testaments to your time in the trenches before you moved onward and upward.
Abundant camera time, though, creates many opportunities for wardrobe malfunctions, especially when the schedule is as grueling as the marathon sessions now being held on health care. The staff is usually there long after the senator goes home.
So it was that Sullivan, after another long night of zipping things up for the committee, showed up the next morning with a suit jacket that was one color and slacks that were, well, another shade. (Thankfully, he had left the matching jacket out in the car.) Lindy Paull, a former chief of staff for the joint committee on taxation, still gets teased about showing up once with one black shoe and one blue shoe, each heel a different height. She had no time to remedy the situation, and teetered through the hearing.
TV exposure conferred spiritual benefits for Hayes -- he got well wishes from the preacher during a service at his United Methodist church in Alexandria. And, of course, there are the "Mom calls." Burke's ordered her to "comb your hair!" Racquel Russell, a 30-year-old aide whom Sen. Thomas Carper's staff calls their "health guru," has managed to pass the mom test in the coiffing department, but wouldn't you know that the proud mom would still want more?
"You need to smile more!" Mom -- Leonie Laing -- declares from Florida. To which daughter invariably replies: "Mom! This isn't a beauty pageant!"
More terrifying than the prospect of displeasing C-SPAN-monitoring moms is the risk of leaving your senator hanging. Staffers have night sweats about this, and it's one of the reasons they can be seen struggling into the room with sloshing piles of sticky-noted binders. Russell calls these her "security blankets," just in case she's forgotten something, even after playing and replaying every possible scenario back in the office with her colleagues.
Interrupting one's senator is a protocol problemo -- generally, a big no-no. But there are moments when it can't be avoided. Bill Hoagland, who spent more than two decades as a top aide to former New Mexico senator Pete Domenici, was once forced to delicately butt in on his boss to let him (and him alone) know someone was on the phone -- the president of the United States of America. Seems Ronald Reagan wasn't happy with what he was watching on his television during a markup of a bill to cut defense spending.
Hoagland, now a lobbyist for Cigna Corp., has faced off with many of the aides arrayed around the Hart 216 horseshoe these days. Hoagland jokes that his Budget Committee days were like "The Bill and Bill Show" because he worked with Republicans on the committee while Bill Dauster worked with the Democrats.
Dauster, who has a thick gray beard and glasses, is undeniably the breakout star of this year's spectacle. As the committee's deputy staff director, he sits just behind Baucus, where much of the action is taking place. On Dauster's left is Fowler, whom Hoagland calls a health-care whiz kid. She's a triathlete whose fingers are perpetual motion machines, in almost constant touch with her BlackBerry. She's buff enough to engage in "the committee-room squat" -- a position beside the principal, held for minutes on end.
They don't make staff chairs big enough for a Bill Dauster; he's got basketball-player wingspan. Acts of contortion are required for him to make the rounds among staffers to gather reconnaissance. He pretzels up those long limbs to avoid towering over the senators when he's gathering proxy votes down the row.
Hoagland, his friend and old foil, places Dauster "left of center" on the political spectrum. The word "legend" gets thrown around a lot when Hill types talk about Dauster, who has been working in Congress since 1986, except for some brief detours, such as a stint at the White House and some time on then-Sen. Paul Wellstone's presidential exploratory committee. He's one of those guys who seems to know all the answers, a trait prized above all. But he isn't one to grab a microphone during a hearing -- when Baucus asked him to step down to the witness table, he cracked that it might have been his first time on that side of the conversation.
For all of Dauster's fade-into-the-background ways inside the Capitol, boy, can he cut loose outside of it. He has a Web site called A Progressive Voice to archive all his quipstering, an anthology of one-liners that might have spiced up some of the duller moments during the past two weeks of marathon health-care debating. In speeches, he has noted that "Congress does do a lot that's worth making fun of" and that "stupidity is not a disqualification for Congress," a notion that he backed up in bipartisan fashion by invoking Grassley's observation that "a lot of nuts get elected to the United States Senate."
In 2006, Dauster told an audience that "Ambrose Bierce defined a 'day' as 'a period of twenty-four hours, mostly misspent.' Bierce could well have been speaking of an average day in the administration of President George W. Bush."
Maybe Dauster needs his own show. But, over at Hart, it's a Baucus production. Dauster always plays the straight man.
Researcher Alice Crites and staff writer Dana Milbank contributed to this report.