With Congress out of session, Washingtonians seeking opportunities to observe the inner-workings of Capitol Hill may think they’re out of luck. The United States Capitol Historical Society, however, has organized a month’s worth of lectures to take these political junkies behind the scenes of the Capitol, all in one air-conditioned room. [IMGCAP(1)]
“Under the Dome: The Work Behind the Scenes at the Capitol” is the theme of the society’s annual August brown-bag lunch and lecture series, which will bring four speakers to the Hill’s VFW building each Wednesday. From noon to 1 p.m., former Congressional staff and longtime Hill experts will talk about
their experiences working within the building.
“The program first began with our previous president, Clarence Brown, in 1993,” Don Kennon, USCHS vice president and chief historian, explained. He added, with a laugh, that “in a way, the program’s name, ‘brown bag,’ has a double-entendre!”
Brown, a former Republican Representative from Ohio, wanted to find a way of reaching out to staff during the August recess while also giving the society more visibility in the community. Topics have ranged from the Capitol’s art history to stories of women serving in Congress.
This year’s program kicked off Wednesday with a talk by former House Clerk Donnald Anderson, who arrived in Washington, D.C., when he was 17 to be a page for then-Rep. John Moss (D-Calif.). Anderson went on to operate elevators in the Capitol and House office buildings and assisted in the oversight of the Democratic Cloakroom before becoming the majority floor manager and finally the Clerk of the House in 1987.
“I’ve always thought that the story of my career was an American success story if there ever was one,” Anderson said. “I achieved my fantasy since I was 17 years old, which was to be the Clerk of the House. … When I first heard about it, I thought, ‘this is the niftiest job in the world!’”
Anderson did most of the talking with the guidance of questions from the audience, running down the list of his various responsibilities — from keeping the House journals to issuing House employee paychecks — and sharing the kind of behind-the-scenes anecdotes brown-bag participants had come to hear.
In one such story, from his days as the Democratic Cloakroom manager, he told of the role he played in changing the standards for the television coverage of House proceedings.
In the early days of C-SPAN’s presence in the Capitol, Anderson said, then-Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) set strict guidelines for how the camera could function on the floor: “Cameras were to follow Congressional record … tight shots on whoever was speaking, and no panning out to get reaction shots.”
All of this changed on the day then-Rep. Bob Walker (R-Pa.) was giving a particularly fiery address during special orders in which he was assailing his Democratic colleagues — except that side of the aisle was completely empty. According to Anderson, O’Neill was so enraged that he called the Cloakroom and instructed Anderson to tell the television station immediately that “from now on, during special orders, the Speaker wants the cameras to pan!’”
The brown-bag lecture series returns each Wednesday for the next three weeks. The roster will include former House Reading Clerk Paul Hays, historian and scholar Andrew Dodge and former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle. No reservations are needed, and attendees are encouraged to bring a lunch.