Twenty-two years ago, Richard A. House left the Marine Corps and got a job running a printing machine at the U.S. Senate. Eventually House worked his way up to a top management position, holding almost every job in his department along the way.
Last week, House and 21 other employes of the Senate sergeant at arms were abruptly fired, victims of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget cuts.
Ernest E. Garcia, the sergeant at arms, said he had begun to lay off employes because under the automatic deficit reduction legislation his budget will be reduced by 4.3 percent March 1.
"I have less of a budget to work from than last year. It's simple arithmetic," said Garcia. He said last week's firings are probably just the first in a series of cutbacks and layoffs he will make as he reviews the dozen departments his office oversees.
About 1,600 persons are employed by the sergeant at arms. The office has an annual budget of $75 million to $100 million and includes the U.S. Capitol Police, post office, tour guides, computer staff, service staff and employes who run the Senate recording and photography studios.
Garcia made the first cutbacks in the computer division and the service department, which handles mass mailings and office equipment.
At 5 p.m. Wednesday, House, who was a night supervisor in the service department earning about $38,000 a year, was summoned to the office of the deputy sergeant at arms, Trudi Morrison.
"She said, 'Your job was reorganized. You don't work here. Please turn in your keys and badge and clean out your desk,' " said House.
House, 45, who lives in Silver Spring, said he is the sole support of his wife and four children, including a daughter who has a kidney disease. "I told her Morrison I would take a demotion or a pay cut. But she said, 'No demotion, no cut in pay. Just get out the door.' "
Several Senate aides said last week that the staff of the sergeant at arms has become bloated over the years, but because the jobs were patronage positions, the Senate leadership never had any reason to cut back until the budget crunch. They said, however, that the dismissals could have been handled more sensitively, and that employes could have been given more warning.
Job security has long been an issue on Capitol Hill, where few workers have the right to organize unions because Congress exempted itself from labor laws, and workers do not have the protection of the federal civil service system. Many of the top patronage jobs routinely turn over with each change in leadership in the Senate and House.
Morrison did not return phone calls about House's firing, but Garcia said that he directed his staff to be as supportive as possible. Fired employes will get at least 25 to 35 days of severance pay, depending on how long they have worked, Garcia said.
"It's not an easy thing to do. It's one of the toughest things I've ever done in my life," said Garcia. "I don't think anybody has ever found a good way to do this."
Garcia said he based his layoff decisions on whether a position was needed, rather than on individual performance. Thus, people like House, who said he has not taken a sick day during the last 17 years and has received no complaints about his performance, were among the first casualties.
Garcia, who was appointed to the sergeant at arms post in June by Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), said he believes that his staff can operate efficiently on a much leaner budget. He said he inherited a top-heavy staff, "with a lot of duplication and inflated salaries."
Another fired employe, Frank W. Curtis, who earned about $67,000 a year as director of the Senate services department, said that when he was hired in 1981 he was told to get rid of patronage in the services area and establish career paths for his employes. He said the people fired last week made up his entire top support staff. "They were damn good loyal employes to me," he said.
House said he understands that there is no job security in Congress. "But," he said, "I know employes who have been accused of wrongdoing who have been allowed to keep their jobs. I've literally given my lifeblood to this place, and now I'm fired."