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House lawmakers make a dash for ash

Talk about getting left in the dust.

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., at right with ash on his forehead, talks to Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., before a hearing Wednesday.
Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., at right with ash on his forehead, talks to Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., before a hearing Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Some House members were (temporarily) left in the dust on Ash Wednesday when they showed up looking for ashes during an afternoon vote series.

A sign posted outside the Speaker’s ceremonial office stated that ashes would be available to members (reporters were welcomed, too) during House votes.

When lawmakers including Reps. Deb Haaland, Peter King, Jim McGovern, Gwen Moore and Carol Miller arrived, however, House Chaplain Patrick Conroy was MIA.

“He’s gotta stock up on ashes — I got a lot of forehead,” quipped one lawmaker.

Priests apply ashes to parishioners’ foreheads in the shape of the cross on Ash Wednesday, a Christian holy day perhaps most commonly associated with Catholicism (Moore and Miller are Baptist). It falls on the first day of Lent — about six weeks of fasting and prayer ending soon before Easter. Traditionally the ashes are from palm fronds used on the previous year’s Palm Sunday, which falls a week before Easter.

And, as far as holy days go, attendance tends to be brisk.

Conroy, clearly in high demand, had to leave for another service in the Visitor Center at 2:30 p.m. — followed by two additional services, which were “open to everyone,” a spokesman for the House chaplain told Heard on the Hill in an email.

It appears the chaplain had plans to return, but after waiting for some time, the pressed-for-time lawmakers made a dash toward the Visitor Center to find him.

The call to action came from a sergeant at arms staffer who sensed their urgency. Heard on the Hill was lost in the scramble, and it remains unclear whether Conroy was tracked down.

Getting to the high-demand Conroy, or someone to administer ashes on the holy day, is especially important for members of Congress.

Thirty percent of the members are Roman Catholics, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis. That’s about 10 percent higher than the U.S. adult population, according to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study.

Former House Speaker John Boehner, in his first speech after taking the speaker’s gavel in January 2011, referred to Ash Wednesday in an attempt to humble Congress.

“The ashes remind us that life in all its forms is fragile — our time on this Earth, fleeting,” he said.

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