John Lawrence seems to measure time differently than most Capitol Hill staffers. Chief of staff for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Lawrence has been a congressional aide for 38 years — more years than some of his colleagues have been alive and enough time to be regarded as the longest-serving House staffer.
Lawrence is retiring Friday after having served under only two bosses, Pelosi and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), for whom he worked for three decades. A trained historian, he sat down with us to discuss the changes he’s witnessed and to share his long-lensed view on legislating.
An edited transcript of that conversation follows:
How were you able to stay [on Capitol Hill] for so long?
A lot of people leave because they get frustrated, and I didn’t. That’s partly because [Rep. George] Miller is an incredibly skilled legislator, and we had a very collaborative relationship. . . .
What drives people away very often is frustration that the political system and the legislative process don’t respond very quickly. I learned that it takes a while to do things. Legislating is an organic process. You don’t just have a good idea, throw it on the ground and it blossoms right away.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in your 38 years?
It’s a more partisan institution. What’s misunderstood is the extent to which that’s a frustration even among members. It’s not something people here are happy about.
There are aspects of contemporary life that enhance that — money is part of it. Communications, which changes the ability of very, very small groups of people to influence the process.
There are a lot of historical forces that have conspired around a relatively short period of time to entrench some groups in hard-line positions where they don’t want to cooperate.
But it’s crucial that people understand that this is not endemic to the nature of this institution. I would say that the Congress we just finished was unquestionably the most unproductive Congress.
It basically stumbled from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis. Some people drew the conclusion “Well, this just doesn’t work anymore. The system has completely failed.”
You don’t agree?
If you go back to the prior two years, you have what . . . [many consider] the most successful Congress in 75 years, where we produced massively important, sweeping legislation, whether it had to do with health care or Wall Street reform.
Two years before that we functioned in divided government, where you had a Democratic Congress and a Republican president. . . . I would say that you can’t have gone from a system that was able to produce changes on a bipartisan basis — to take dramatic movement to save the country from financial crisis and to deliver on the promise of health care — and that exact same system is a system that can’t function?
No. Something else has to be going on.
You had an infusion of a large number of people who would describe themselves as viewing government as a problem. What is their agenda? What’s the end of the day for them? “I cut spending?” That’s it? . . .
We have to be fiscally responsible. Everybody agrees to that. . . .But that’s not a vision.
You’ve certainly spent time working on the minority side. Is that much more frustrating?
The norm in history is that you gain power and you lose power, and the real issue to me . . . is: What do you do with power when you have it?
You worked for three decades for George Miller, and it’s been said that the two of you were practically one another’s alter ego.
We went through the 1960s on different coasts, but we went through it together. There was something forged then, and not just for the two of us. . . . There were issues that you . . . were dedicated to working on. There were certainly issues of war and peace, but issues of rights of people to be protected and enhanced, whether that was civil rights or women’s rights or disabled rights or gay and lesbian rights. Those were things injected into our DNA in that period of time.
And he taught me a lot. I came here, like a lot of people, with lots of opinions and very little idea about what to do about them.
Excluding your boss, Pelosi, who was the most effective speaker you knew?
Tip O’Neill understood that there were certain issues crucial to the well-being and future of the country, and he understood those had to be communicated effectively to the country.
His wasn’t an insular institution the way it was under a [Sam] Rayburn or a Joe Martin, who were very powerful speakers, but most people in the country didn’t have a clue what they were doing. . . .
How would you describe Pelosi’s leadership style?
Relentless. Indefatigable . . . . There was no member she would not talk to. There was no conversation she would not engage in toward the objective of her end, and if that meant staying until 2 a.m., she would do it . . . .
Many members of Congress today are relatively inexperienced. What does that mean for Congress?
I don’t think the issue here is their duration. I think it’s attitudinal. It’s a question of “What is your view about government and what is your view of the process of governing?”
There are a lot of people who have come into office with very little in the way of legislative or political experience. But they had commitment on issues.
And they had what I would view as a positive trait: They came because they thought government could play a role in advancing the values and policies they cared about. Not that it would solve all the problems. . . . This isn’t Sherwood Forest. We don’t do perfect things here. But we could play a role.
The situation becomes more problematical when people come here, occupy key roles in government and then are not prepared to use government in an effective way to address legitimate national issues. Or they have such an adversarial relationship that they view government as the problem.
What are you most proud of?
Even though I was more observer, the passage of health care . . . . I have a son with preexisting conditions. His life was changed by virtue of that law. That was incredible. Everyone there knew they were there for an historic event. . . .
What I’m probably proudest of was in the 1980s, I heard of an incident that had occurred in Congressman Miller’s district during World War II. A munitions-loading facility called Port Chicago had exploded and hundreds of people had been killed, most of them black sailors who were involved in the loading operation. . . .
A few weeks after the explosion, a large group of the remaining black sailors were court-martialed because they refused to go back to the unsafe loading facility and they were thrown in jail.
We began the process of creating a national park at the site of the explosion to honor the people who had been killed and to secure presidential pardons. And we ended up with the park and with President Clinton pardoning one of the sailors in 1999.
Now, the story of Port Chicago is taught a lot in schools and there have been some movies and TV programs about it, and it’s become part of the history of race relations in the 1940s in the military.
What advice do you give junior staffers?
Find a person to work for that you believe in and learn their subject matter. Understand that legislating is an organic process. There are good times and there are bad times. Even when you win, you’re going to have to defend what you’re doing and prevent it from being undone.
This is not a business for people who don’t have endurance and thick skin.
What will you do on your last day?
I might take a tour of the Capitol, because I’ve never taken one in 38 years. I’ve given lots of them, and I’d like to see things I missed and I’d like to get the actual accurate versions of things I told people. I give a great tour — I just can’t testify to the accuracy of any of it.