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The appropriations process can be a real thriller

He labored in the Senate for 30 years, and boy does he have a story to tell

Charles Houy, who worked for the Senate Appropriations Committee for 30 years, has completed his third Capitol Hill-based novel.
Charles Houy, who worked for the Senate Appropriations Committee for 30 years, has completed his third Capitol Hill-based novel. (Courtesy Charles Houy)

What happens when a veteran appropriations staffer who is about to retire tries to get his last bill passed with a minimum of commotion — and then things blow up?

That’s the scenario in the latest novel by Charles Houy, a retired Senate Appropriations staffer himself.

Houy was notoriously tight-lipped when he worked for the committee, particularly when it came to the press. But in his novels, he spills the beans on how bills really become law, although he insists it’s all fiction.

“Shoot the Staff” follows a defense clerk whose path to retirement is disrupted “when a whistleblower comes out and starts talking about the possibility of rigging elections,” Houy says. He’ll self-publish it sometime in August.

Houy knows his subject. This is his third time releasing a Hill-based thriller. More to the point, he labored in the Senate Appropriations Committee for 30 years, serving under chairmen as varied as Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska and Democrats John C. Stennis of Mississippi, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii. He was the Democratic Defense Subcommittee clerk from 1995 to 2010 and full committee staff director from 2009 to 2013.

Though he dipped into fiction with two creative writing classes at the University of California, Davis, Houy never thought of himself as a writer. But in 2006, near the end of the George W. Bush administration, the California native found a reason to change that. By then a recognized defense expert, Houy was alarmed by the direction foreign policy was taking.

“The focus in the Department of Defense, and frankly the whole national security apparatus, was on southwest Asia — the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he says. “I thought we weren’t paying enough attention to North Korea and China.” He also was “worried about where I thought presidential politics was going because I didn’t foresee Barack Obama.”

So he started writing his first novel — “I guess out of frustration” — to grapple with his concerns. He relied on his insider knowledge but took some creative liberties. Politicians rush toward nuclear disaster, a senator takes campaign money from the Chinese military and a defense clerk (of course) gets caught in the middle. It would take him eight years to finish the book, and another three before he would self-publish it in 2017.

When it appeared, “Vigilante Politics” attracted favorable notice from at least one tastemaker. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “sent me a real nice note about it and how he enjoyed reading it,” Houy says.

His second novel features a scientist plucked from the National Reconnaissance Office and thrown into the deep end of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Despite having earned her Ph.D. from Stanford at the age of 21, the character — “almost an idiot savant, not quite” — quickly finds herself in over her head.

“It’s a story of what happens to people who come somewhat midcareer and are put into the top of the echelon in the Senate or in Congress, how they sometimes just don’t understand the formal culture of how the process works,” he says. Houy himself earned master’s degrees in diplomacy and world affairs and in public administration before he went to work for the Senate.

Houy, right, confers with Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, at a Senate Appropriations markup in 2011.
(Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The one character who appears in all three books is Harris Ward, a seasoned, never-give-up Roll Call reporter who Houy says “seems to know more about what’s going on than anybody else around him.” Ward “has a lot of sources and is always on top of stories, and he seems to have a good instinct for ferreting out the truth.”

All his characters are either composites or “just straight out of the imagination,” Houy says. But he adds that the action, how things get done behind closed doors in the Senate, is “close to reality … from my perspective at least.”

In fact, Houy says that was part of his motivation. He wanted to offer an accurate portrayal of the Senate and the appropriations process since he hasn’t seen that in other novels.

The legislative process has come under heavy criticism in recent years, but to Houy, it still “kind of works fairly well to a degree.”

“You have to be willing to accept that things are not going to be as clean and simple and pure as you might in a perfect world like to see,” he says.

Writing that first book was a challenge, but Houy has warmed to the practice. He outlines his stories in detail but often comes up with the dialogue during long walks on the scenic Monterey Peninsula in California, where he and his wife, Sharon, a former chief of staff for the Defense Intelligence Agency, moved after retirement.

“If I’m really in the middle of it, I can sit down and write for eight hours straight,” says Houy, who looks to thriller writers like David Baldacci and John Grisham for inspiration. While the work can be intense, he doesn’t “really stress over it or anything like that.”

“I stressed enough for 30 years,” he says.

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