Congress Has Your Number?

Pity the poor House Democrats, doomed to minority status because every two years Bill Clinton figures out a new way to cost them an election. (1994: Hillary’s health-care plan; 1996: The first stories about the White House coffees and Lincoln Bedroom sleep-overs; 1998: Monica?). While the Republican Senate still retains traces of old-fashioned comity, House Democrats are subject to the whims of Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey. The GOP leadership orchestrates the House schedule, and lowly Democrats often find out what when they’re voting and what they’re voting on only at the last minute.

All this became clear to Chatterbox when he tried to arrange dinner Wednesday night with a Democratic legislator. With Gingrich and crew keeping the House in session late to camouflage the GOP’s languid legislative calendar, it was clear that we were going to have to dine between roll-call votes. But exactly when would the dinner break fall? My dinner partner called the Democratic cloakroom (not a hat-check concession, but the legislative inner sanctum) to try to divine the evening’s schedule. The answer was predictable: “They haven’t told us yet.” So my friend dispatched a staffer, conveniently married to a GOP legislative aide, to sneak over to his wife’s office to call the Republican cloakroom. This daring night-time raid behind enemy lines quickly yielded the vital intelligence that the next vote wasn’t slated until after 8:00.

Still, these elaborate machinations left Chatterbox puzzled. Why didn’t they just phone the Republican cloakroom from this office? “We used to do it that way,” my Democratic friend explained, “but the Republican cloakroom just put Caller ID on their phones, and we’re afraid we’ll get caught.”

This revelation had the makings of a scoop. Technology had cost the House Democrats their one voice link to opposition headquarters. Caller ID was as nefarious as the Soviets jamming Voice of America radio transmissions during the Cold War. From now on, House Democrats wouldn’t have reliable information about when to eat or when they could plan to go home after a long legislative day. It was already bad enough for House Democrats that Republican beepers always go off first to announce a roll-call vote.

That night as we lingered over coffee at an Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill, my Democratic friend puckishly suggested that Chatterbox himself should call the Republican cloakroom to find out if the schedule for the next vote had slipped. Always up for a little journalistic intrigue, the offer was too tempting to refuse. Since the restaurant phone had no partisan connotations, the gambit worked like a charm. Chatterbox didn’t even use a fake name, though the nom de guerre of John Shimkus, a particularly obscure GOP backbencher, was at the ready. Not only did an eager Republican cloakroom staffer reveal that the next roll-call was now slated for 8:30, but she clearly would have been eager to instruct Chatterbox how to vote.

The story of Caller ID in the Republican cloakroom clearly fell under the journalistic rubric of “too good to check.” But the next day Chatterbox was feeling particularly punctilious, and in his real-life guise phoned the GOP cloakroom to confirm the arrival of Caller ID. “No, we don’t have anything like that,” a grizzled voice of a veteran GOP cloakroom official snapped. Sensing a coverup, Chatterbox rechecked the story. Like so much in the Monica Lewinsky saga, all that is certain in this tale is the existence of bipartisan rumors of Caller ID. For the full truth, Chatterbox may have to wait for a latter-day Ken Starr to turn his subpoena powers on the all-knowing House Republican cloakroom.

Walter Shapiro