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Millender-McDonald Tackles Traffic and Much More

Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) wants to assure her colleagues that she is well aware that road rage is very much a bipartisan issue.

Any Member who’s ever felt the frustration of sitting in gridlock around the Capitol complex while trying to get to the floor in time for a vote knows that the mini-city that is Capitol Hill can be more than a bit congested during rush hour.

Millender-McDonald said in a recent interview that as the new unofficial mayor of that community, she is looking to tackle Congressional traffic woes head-on by asking the Capitol Police to reassess the synchronization of traffic lights on and around Capitol Hill.

As the newly appointed chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, Millender-McDonald is charged with ensuring that the day-to-day operations of the House run smoothly, and traffic-light synchronization is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the minutiae she is now dealing with.

Although serving on House Administration often is considered a stepping stone to other leadership posts — Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is a former ranking member on the committee, as is Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman John Larson (Conn.), while former Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) previously wielded the gavel — the day-to-day work of the panel usually is less than glamorous.

Sure, House Administration has jurisdiction over headline-grabbing issues like contested elections and campaign finance reform, but most issues are more mundane, such as a light bulb that wasn’t working on a clock near the House subway, which a colleague brought to Millender-McDonald’s attention on the House floor during her first days on the job.

In the weeks since, there have been other questions ranging from usage of the Members’ Representational Allowance to franking.

“Someone has even asked me about the voice in the elevators,” she said. “They don’t like the sound of the voice in the elevator. So it runs the gamut of things. … You look at all of this with the intent of accommodating the Members.”

A self-described transportation enthusiast (which explains her interest in Capitol Hill traffic patterns) whose first Congressional committee assignment was on the Transportation and Infrastructure panel, Millender-McDonald was first appointed to House Administration at the beginning of the 108th Congress.

She said serving on the committee wasn’t a post she actively sought at the time, but that the Democratic leadership thought “it might be a good committee for me as I am a former personnel director in the public sector and I’ve always had an interest in people.”

She rose to the role of ranking member in the 109th Congress and built a reputation as a champion of Congressional employee protections. Last year she introduced legislation to make it easier for a group of 59 Library of Congress employees whose jobs were being eliminated to find employment in other areas of the federal government.

House Administration is one of three chairmanships appointed by the Speaker, and when Millender-McDonald was tapped to wield the gavel during the 110th Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) called her fellow Californian “a powerful and passionate voice … committed to a professionally managed House of Representatives, served by a diverse workforce.”

In taking on that task, Millender-McDonald promised to be “very open, very receptive … very accommodating” to any Member who has an idea about how to make the House run more efficiently.

And though she won’t be carrying around a notebook to write down Member concerns like her predecessor, former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), she said she’s been told she has an elephant’s memory.

“Members are important to the well-being of this place, and we have to make sure that Members are treated with respect and that they are accommodated in their requests,” she said. “That’s what we are here for.”

But beyond responding to the concerns of her 434 House colleagues, Millender-McDonald has a few other goals in mind for the committee.

In December, Christine Jennings, the 2006 Democratic candidate in Florida’s 13th district, filed a formal complaint with House Administration alleging that a “pervasive malfunctioning” of electronic voting machines led to an “undervote” of 18,000 individuals and cost her the election.

While Millender-McDonald has said that she will wait for the Florida courts to rule on the matter before taking up Jennings’ complaint in her panel, she did say that “the priority of this committee is to look at e-voting machines. I think the integrity of our democracy is such where we can not allow one voter to think that their vote is not counted.”

Closer to Capitol Hill, Millender-McDonald already has begun meeting with the heads of the various legislative branch agencies to discuss her priorities as chairwoman, which include a lot more than making sure traffic lights are well-synchronized.

After sitting down with House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle and Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse recently, Millender-McDonald said she stressed to Congress’ top cops her strong interest in protecting the Hill’s protectors.

“I told them that the officers must know that they have support from the top down,” she said.

She said the police department must provide its officers with opportunities for training and advancement that will ensure the stability of the force.

“One thing I want to make sure is that they are supported and that we do not have a high attrition rate because of salaries and that their benefits are such so that they feel good about coming to work because they know that they are going to have a good benefit package once they leave,” she said. “And we want it to mirror America so we want the diversity there.”

Getting back to the minutiae of the job, Millender-McDonald said she also discussed with Morse the importance of officers having crisp uniforms and projecting the proper image at all times.

“Perhaps there might be some that need some [new] uniforms,” she said. “We have prime ministers and presidents of other nations all coming through here, we want them to look the part. They already are the part, they are very courteous, very respectful. … I just want to make sure we have the very best of attire.”

Over at the Architect of the Capitol’s office, Millender-McDonald said her immediate concern is to finally bringing the Capitol Visitor Center project to a close.

“The overruns of this center and the lack of completing on the date we initially set, those are the problems,” she said.

However, she added that Congress’ management of the project up to this point is at least partly to blame for the project getting so off-track.

“Anytime there is a project as large as this and in the middle of the road you start making changes, that is going to impede a lot of this, I’m afraid a lot of the changes have impeded some process,” she said.

And as she moves ahead with a thousand other large and small issues — from a possible move off the Hill by the Government Printing Office to Members who don’t like their office furnishings — Millender-McDonald said she was glad to have a good working relationship with the former chairman and current ranking member, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.).

For his part, Ehlers said he plans to “do my best to be a good representative of the Republican point of view” but that his main concern is a smoothly operating House — which, like reducing Members’ road rage, is a nonpartisan goal shared by Millender-McDonald.