Seated behind a desk in the House Clerk’s office sits a woman who has seen and done more than most staffers.
In the transient atmosphere of Capitol Hill, Pat Kelly has been a constant, serving in various roles for 50 years. Over the course of a half-century, she has done research for groundbreaking legislation, worked for 25 Congresses and even danced at the White House.
“Fifty years is almost enough, but not quite,” She laughs.
To mark her milestone of service, Kelly and several other long-serving staffers will be honored in a ceremony from 3 to 5 p.m. today in the Cannon Caucus Room.
A lot has changed since Pat Kelly, now editor of the House Daily Digest, first began working in Congress in 1957; for one thing, there are a lot more women now.
When she first began working as a research analyst for the House Committee on Un-American Activities at the age of 22, there were just 16 women serving in Congress, one of whom was her mother, then-Rep. Edna Kelly (D-N.Y.).
Edna Kelly, the first woman to represent Brooklyn, served in Congress for 20 years and, according to Congressional records on women in Congress, went head-to-head against Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. for a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Backed by the Democratic members of the Ways and Means Committee, she ultimately won the seat and the committee expanded its roster to make room for the former president’s son.
When she was a teenager, Kelly would join her mother on the campaign trail.
“I went around visiting people,” asking them to “please vote for my mother,” she says.
After studying history and political science at Marymount Manhattan College, Kelly moved to the District to live with her mother and serve her country. “I just felt that urge to do something and I wanted to follow in her footsteps,” she says, adding, “She was a great gal.”
And that’s just what Kelly did. Her mother worked tirelessly on the first equal-pay-for-equal-work bill and was in attendance when President John F. Kennedy signed it into law in 1962. In the early 1970s, Kelly, showing the same tenacity as her mother, entered into the fight for equal rights as a legislative assistant to then-Rep. Martha Griffiths (D-Mich.), for whom Kelly worked on the Equal Rights Amendment.
“Of course there were a lot of people who were against it,” she said of the legislation. “And then people who were too much for it burning the bras and so forth. That didn’t help either with the gentlemen.”
Kelly was prepared for the amendment to fail, saying, “At that time the man was the main guy in the whole world.” While she was disappointed because of all the hard work her office had put into the amendment, Kelly is quick to add that she saw a silver lining, saying, “The visibility of the whole thing would be good for women anyway.”
When asked if she thinks the country is ready for a woman president, she answers without hesitation, “Yes.”
“It’s important for women to be involved,” she says. “I don’t necessarily think that they have to be in politics, but they should be up to date on what’s going on in their local communities. And knowledgeable about it and if they can do something or bring it to somebody’s attention then the need is there.”
As editor of the House Daily Digest, Kelly must keep track of 21 standing committees and two select committees.
“It’s sort of like being a teacher,” she says. “In the sense that I’ve been through the turnover to Republicans and back to the Democrats and tried to help each and every one of them do their jobs.”
The job also requires her to use e-mail and a BlackBerry, something of a change from her first few decades in Congress.
“I do a lot of talking by e-mail, which is quite different from anything I’ve ever done,” she says. “I came here when they were still using manual typewriters so all these new things are helpful, but you can get an awful lot of e-mail in one day!”
Another change that Kelly has seen in her tenure is the interaction among staffers. She worries that staffers today aren’t as friendly as they used to be and that they suffer from not talking enough to one another.
Years ago, Kelly was a member of the now-defunct Congressional Staff Club. She describes the organization as a social group started in the 1930s and designed to bring staffers together and aid them with any complaints or concerns they had on the job. Each year, the club president would alternate between a Democrat and a Republican so “it was not strictly a political tool for anybody.”
In 1976, Pat Kelly served as president of the Congressional Staff Club.
“Oh it was wonderful! We had social parties and everybody came over and danced,” she remembers. “That’s one of the ways I got to meet so many people.”
When asked why she chose to stay on the Hill through the years, Pat Kelly cites the famous JFK quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” While she never wanted to be in the limelight as an elected official, she says she is happy to do a lot of work behind the scenes.
“I haven’t had any regrets, I’m just working all the time and I love it,” she says. “I love my job, I love to work and I love to help people.”