By Herbert Block, House 1982
(This was originally published in the Community Herald in 1982 when Herbert was a 17-year old senior at The Ramaz School in New York State.)
Every day at the predetermined hour, the Speaker of the House, Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr., rose to the rostrum, banged the gavel, and announced, “The hour to which the House adjourned having arrive, the House will be in order.” Thus began every day for me, working this summer on the floor of the House of Representatives as one of the two Documentarian Pages.
I had tried for more than a year to become a page and my experience in Washington was more than I expected. The duties of the Documentarian Pages are vital to the efficient operation of Congress. Every day I would keep track of all legislation pending on the floor; distribute copies of bills and amendments to the Democratic and Republican cloakrooms, journal clerks, and press; raise and lower the flag on the roof of the Capitol that signaled when the House was in session; operate the Legislative Bell System, which, through a series of various bells and lights, informs members in all the House office buildings of pending floor votes, quorum calls, and so on; make sure the Speaker and other rostrum staff had fresh water; and sit at my desk on the third tier of the rostrum and answer questions from members about what was being debated or voted on.
At the age of 17 I was privileged to listen and learn from the debates and discussions on the floor of the House and to work with some of our nation’s statesmen. Eighty-five pieces of legislation were passed during my five-week term, many of them minor, but two days of debate stand out in my mind.
The House spent a full date debating the Nuclear Freeze resolution, which failed by two votes. Members debated every possible aspect of our nuclear policy in often heated exchange. President Reagan had been lobbying heavily against the Freeze and no one knew what to expect when a vote came. Debate against the Freeze was concluded by the Minority Leader, Robert Michel, and then, to the surprise of many, the Speaker took the well of the House to address his colleagues on this issue. Almost all the members were present, the galleries were packed, and out of respect to the Speaker, everyone was quiet.
After an aw-inspiring, emotional speech, the vote was taken, and it seesawed to each side, one vote at a time. The Speaker, who usually votes only in case of a tie, cast his vote on this issue, and opponents or proponents of the Freeze would cheer as their side inched ahead, with all the members crowded around the Tally Clerk on the rostrum. I felt honored to witness such an important debate and overwhelmed with awe at being in the midst of such a vital Congressional vote.
The debate on the Tax Bill probably was one of the few that actually worked in changing members’ minds. It was a strange coalition both supporting and opposing this bill, with each member voting as he or she did for a different reason. Once again, the Speaker addressed the House, but an interesting historical fact is that the entire House was present, something that rarely if ever had occurred before. Votes were cast by 433 of the 435 members, and had Representative James H. Scheuer (D-NY), who was in the chamber but forgot to vote, done so, there would have been a record set for the most members voting (the Speaker begin the 435th).
Being on the floor all day (often until late at night) enabled me to learn a lot about the backroom maneuverings and deals that took place on the floor and in the cloarkrooms (two small rooms just off the floor where members can confer, eat, take a nap, and make calls) and in the Speakers Lobby. The only way to really learn about the workings of the Congress is to witness it at work. Even though I was there only for the summer weeks, I learned much about how the House functions and some of its parliamentary procedures.
Today, as a result of watching the Congress up close, I am more impressed by the overall caliber of the members and the institution. It would be beneficial for every citizen to vote in Congressional (and all) elections, because these are the men and women who are shaping our nation’s policy.