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‘Teaching the Socratic method with a bullwhip’: Congress remembers legend Judy Schneider

Congressional expert mentored countless lawmakers and staff

Lawmakers and staffers have shared their memories of Judy Schneider, who died this month.
Lawmakers and staffers have shared their memories of Judy Schneider, who died this month. (Courtesy Women in Government Relations)

Learning from Judy Schneider was a lot like going to legislative boot camp, her former students said.

When Betsy Wright Hawkings started working on the Hill, she enrolled in Schneider’s course on process and procedures. She recalls being “slapped into shape,” metaphorically.

“It was the legislative equivalent of crawling through the mud on your stomach,” said Hawkings, a longtime senior House aide who now runs her own consulting firm. “You came out of it understanding this is a first-degree amendment, this is the second-degree amendment, this is an amendment in the nature of a substitute. For a brand new [staffer], that information was gold.”

Schneider, who died on June 21 at age 74, dispensed such information for decades, and her expertise and deep faith in Congress earned her iconic status. She spent 40 years at the Congressional Research Service and mentored many people along the way.  

“I don’t know that there is anyone like her,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat. “She definitely shaped my thinking, my career, how we did business, how my staff could operate.”

According to those who knew and loved her, Schneider didn’t suffer fools. She was brash and frank with a sharp wit and a breadth of procedural knowledge that impressed members and staff alike. Former Hill aide Bradford Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, said her style was like “teaching the Socratic method with a bullwhip.” Asking silly questions often prompted a tongue-lashing, what Fitch called “the Judy treatment.”

“By going through that you almost felt like you were initiated into a special, elite club of people that she respected and put up with. It was like, ‘OK, you’ve got thick skin. I’ll continue to work with you,’” Fitch said. “And at the core of what she was doing was trying to make democracy better by making Congress better.”

Schneider didn’t always want to work in Congress. As a child, the New York native, who was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, dreamed of playing second base for the New York Yankees, according to Peggy Tighe, a former Women in Government Relations president who was a close friend of Schneider’s. Even as she battled cancer in the last months of her life, Schneider rarely missed a game. 

“The week before she passed I said, ‘You’re going to go up there and play second base, aren’t you?’” recalled Tighe. “And she said, ‘Yeah, probably.’”

Schneider earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in political science from American University and did a stint working for a few committees on the Hill before landing at CRS in 1979. Early in her career she worked with Walter Kravitz, a CRS senior specialist and himself a towering figure within the institution, who encouraged her to figure out her on-the-job interests.

“She ultimately came back to him and said, ‘I like how the game is played,’” according to Michael Koempel, a CRS co-worker who partnered with Schneider in writing multiple editions of the Congressional Deskbook, a comprehensive guide to Congress. 

“She was a ferocious game player,” Koempel continued. That ferocity applied to bridge, golf and, late in life, the word game Bananagrams. “And she really understood how decisions get made in Congress.” 

Throughout her career, she was a constant resource for congressional offices, consulting daily on House and Senate procedure. In her teachings, she’d preach the three P’s: Policy, Politics and Procedure. And she understood how the three worked together.

“She was able to integrate process and rules to the political dynamics going on in the body at that time, whether it was the House or Senate,” said Rochelle Dornatt, a former senior Hill aide who met Schneider in the early 1980s.

“You may have a brilliant policy, but if the politics and the procedures don’t align for it, it really doesn’t matter, it’s not going to go anywhere,” Koempel said.

Schneider was a prolific writer, generating hundreds of CRS reports and confidential memos and co-authoring a 200-page desk reference for House committee markups.

“Judy was a giant on Capitol Hill for decades,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise said in an emailed statement. “Generations of members and staffers benefited from her deep knowledge of lawmaking. I was lucky to know her and learn from her. She will be deeply missed.” 

Her work earned her a series of plaudits. According to Koempel, she was the first CRS employee to be named a Stennis Fellow, a program normally reserved for senior congressional staff. And Women in Government Relations created a fellowship in Schneider’s name in 2015, citing the impact she had through Direct Connect to Congress, a program she created with Tighe to train non-Hill staff on the inner workings of the legislative branch.

In 2018 she was an inaugural winner of CMF’s Democracy Award for Lifetime Achievement. 

“I believe that every gray hair this town gives me is a badge of honor. And I’m proud to turn gray doing what I do,” Schneider said during her acceptance speech. 

She was also proud of her ability to work with members and staff regardless of their political party. Tighe said Schneider recently told a story about a meeting she had with a group of Democrats. At the end, one put his arm around her and said, “Aren’t we lucky that Judy’s one of us?” The next week, Tighe said, Schneider met with some Republicans who pulled the same move, claiming her as one of their own. 

“Her personal politics didn’t matter to the job she was doing,” Tighe said.

Even after her retirement, and after she got sick, Koempel said Schneider was still on speed dial for many members and staff. “It was unbelievable how current her information could be, not even being present up there,” he said. 

She remained plugged in even as politics changed over the course of her career and different kinds of members arrived, some seemingly only mildly interested in legislating. Friends said she would get frustrated at times with the gridlock and partisanship of Congress. Future generations could learn from her legacy, they said.

“I hope that she’s up there in heaven somewhere and casts her blessings down on us,” Dornatt said. “Sometimes, I think with the stalemate in Congress, we need somebody to sort of give us a good kick in the butt. And Judy is the kind of person who would do that.”