At a time when Congress faces $17 billion in painful budget cuts, the House had authorized spending $1,000 on voice and diction lessons for two of its highest-paid staff members.
The elocution lessons were approved this week by Rep. Frank Thompson Jr. (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Administration Committee. The spending was termed a routine training expense for the two House reading clerks, who recite the wording of legislation under consideration.
Nonetheless, the voice lessons have some House staff members grumbling.
"You'd think that for $44,000 a year, they could find a guy who could read to start with," said one disgruntled aide who earns barely half as much even though he holds a law degree.
The chief spokesman for the House staff, Deputy Clerk W. Raymond Colley, defended the spending. Proper elocution, he said, was particularly important since the advent of live radio and television broadcasts in the House last year.
"I won't say that was the only reason, but it was definitely a factor," Colley said. "It's our responsibility to see that our reading clerks are not only adequate but whether they can't be improved."
The reading clerks, John R. Gregory and Robert E. Berry, are paid $43,691 a year each to sit quietly in the House chamber until a bill or amendment is introduced. At that point, one steps to a microphone and begins reading the legislation. Usually, only a few words are necessary, before the House turns to consideration of the measure.
"I enjoy my job," said Gregory, 28, a college graduate who started out six years ago as a clerk in the House stationary store.
Gregory and Berry, a longtime employe who is the son of a former House member from Maryland, are required to be on the job only while the House is in session. Last year, for example, that added up to 975 hours, less than a half year of 40-hour work weeks, with vacations each time Congress took one of its frequent recesses.
The two have other duties, including inserting the wording of amendments in legislation and, occasionally, hand-carrying messages to the Senate. Gregory said the job is very demanding.
"I think the job could probably even be paid a little more," he said.