That Time I (Helped) Demolish the House Seniority System

Becoming PZ: Stories I Never Wrote Down

Mockingbird / 5.13.21

Grateful for this series of posts from Paul Zahl:

Another rare experience came to me during the last two years of college and the first days of law school. The experience turns out to have been played on a big field. In fact, a book has just come out that deals with it.[1]

But I got to be right there, and here is what took place.

Because of a family and church connection, I was hired by Representative Julia Butler Hansen, of the Third Congressional District of the State of Washington, to work in her office on Capitol Hill. I became her legislative liaison for the Interior Appropriations subcommittee.

At the time, I was conflicted about whether to become a public servant in politics, an Episcopal priest, or a lawyer. What began as a summer internship turned into a full-time job, and almost a full-time career.

My own politics, such as they were at the time, were conservative and Burkean. Mrs. Hansen, on the other hand, was an ardent progressive Democrat. She was also the most powerful woman in the U.S. House of Representatives.

As I say, what began as a summer internship turned out to be something that now looks to have been a part of history.

Mrs. Hansen liked me — and below I’ve attached to this story a copy of a letter she later wrote me — and initially I sort of waited around her office in the Longworth Building to be given something to do. But after a particular writing project turned out alright, she assigned me something more substantial.

She did not like the fact that Southern Democrats were chairing many if not most of the House committees through which all legislation at that time had to go. She couldn’t stand Southern (i.e., conservative) Democrats and believed that they were standing in the way of what was then called “The Great Society.” So Mrs. Hansen resolved to persuade a majority of the Democratic majority in the House to change the rules — the rules of seniority, I mean, by which the sole criterion for a committee chairmanship was how many years a Member had already served in the House. (I understand this issue has been in the news recently.)

She turned to me to help put her ideas into writing. As I said, I was a Burkean conservative at the time and vaguely a Republican. But Julia Hansen and I completely hit it off — even though I was only 18. So I began to research the House rules, and the House precedents; and, needless to say, there were a few loopholes, and some very helpful precedents. She asked me to write it all up, which I did during my second stint on Capitol Hill. And guess what? We did it! The seniority rules were changed.

I don’t remember the specifics — they are in that new book by John Hughes — but I know we did it. Mrs. Hansen was irrepressibly delighted.

Two more facts about the Congresswoman, the second of which was probably the key to her success.

First, the Member was completely comfortable in her own skin — utterly and 100 % herself at all times. Her sense of humor was almost raucous, and she brought that out even more in her staff. When she got too serious or a little too impassioned (for us, at least), we — or rather, her administrative assistant with us looking on — would play a practical joke on her. It always worked. Serving under Mrs. Hansen provided us all a near lifetime of uproarious anecdotes.

Second, and more important, Julia Butler Hansen was a devout Christian Scientist. She absolutely never made a thing of it, and very few with or against whom her political career placed her ever knew about her faith. But one thing we on her staff knew:

At least twice a week, especially if a difficult meeting lay on the day’s schedule, she would close the door and talk on the phone for a half hour with her Christian Science practitioner. We knew at those times that it was out of the question to disturb her, even if her friend LBJ were calling from the White House. Her faith in God and her confidence that she was “God’s perfect child” was Mrs. Hansen’s real secret.

So there it is:

The Honorable Member and me. I miss her a lot. (And but for the Grace of God, I’d probably be a political operative today because of her.)