The staff meeting ended with the most important business of the day: Would our office, the boss wanted to know, be willing to submit to drug tests?
The boss is Clay Shaw, a Republican representative from Florida, who's watched as his state has become overrun by drug dealers, drug crime and drug money. He put the question to us the day the President's Commission on Organized Crime issued a recommendation that federal workers take tests for drug use or risk being fired.
It hardly seems dramatic now, a month afterward. But at the time it was a very big deal. There were plenty of questions from staff members. Were we under suspicion? Would our reputations be damaged? What would people think?
In the end, we agreed. And despite the wisecracks and jokes we've had to put up with from colleagues around the House office buildings, I think we did the right thing.
Of course, it's not always easy being right. Just about every person I've known during my five years on the Hill felt compelled to call and ask if it were true that we were going to fill specimen cups. I told them we were going to keep our vials next to the coffee machine. One newsmagazine ran a feature about Clay and quoted an unidentified Democrat describing his plan as the latest Republican "trickle-down" theory. Cartoons about urine tests were mailed in by the dozen. (We get the newspapers, too, folks.) Everyone assumed our arms were twisted. They weren't.
Only two people on the staff had ever been exposed to the idea of drug testing at previous jobs. The rest of us were a little skittish. For about half an hour, we debated civil liberties -- some people defending positions they didn't even support just for the sake of argument. After a while, the talk against the tests seemed kind of hollow.
Drug testing intrudes on one's privacy no more than a mandatory visit to the doctor. Our office already has an unspoken but well- known policy of no drugs on the job -- or off. And we all had enough respect for our congressman to realize that he wouldn't accept any test results without making sure the test was completely accurate. In fact, Clay seemed a little surprised at the prospect of catching anyone with drugs in his system. It appeared to be the last thing he expected.
A lot of private companies in this country have decided to give employees drug tests. So why not us? Federal employees should be treated no differently from the people who build cars or drive trains. While everyone else is being ordered to take drug tests, we've had the chance to volunteer for them.
I have a 2-year-old son, and I want to make sure that he's not going to grow up thinking that it's okay to take drugs. Nothing we do seems to stop drugs in this country, no matter how much money we spend. Our congressional district, Fort Lauderdale and Broward County, is in the heart of the drug importation capital of the free world. Maybe it's time for us to make a stand. If we don't allow drugs to play a part in our professional lives, then maybe they won't play a part in our personal lives.
It has been a little surprising that no other House office has adopted our idea. And it's been surprising that the wisecracks keep coming. An aide from a New York office seemed shocked to learn that some of us have even considered offering to pay for the tests ourselves.
"Boy, you guys sure are different from us," he said.
Maybe we are.