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Call it the Congressional name game.
On Capitol Hill, staffers often find that addressing one’s boss is rarely a straightforward affair. What you call the person whose name is on the door might depend on your own seniority and your audience. Mostly, though, it depends on the bosses’ personal quirks.
It’s difficult to generalize along age, gender or regional lines about who likes to be called what. Instead, Members’ monikers are highly individual choices, in some cases a product of branding (a first name connotes an everyman humility, while “doctor” reminds voters that their lawmakers have chops on health care legislation) and others, just old habits.
Among the most distinct are the many doctors of Congress. Some of the body’s opticians, veterinarians and surgeons prefer to be identified with their first professions. No wonder there: Doctors are the fifth-most-trusted profession in Gallup’s annual survey; Members of Congress rank above only used-car salesmen and lobbyists.
Rep. Paul Broun might have the voting card of a Member of Congress, but the honorific he prefers is “doctor,” not “Congressman.” In addition to simply being the title the Georgia Republican is used to after years as a black-bag-toting house-call physician, it serves another purpose.
“In Washington, being a doctor has helped him be an influence in health care debates because he has that experience,” spokeswoman Meredith Griffanti says. The M.D. behind his name, featured prominently on his Congressional and campaign websites, is a reminder of his credentials.
Over on the Senate side, John Hart has known his boss, Sen. Tom Coburn for 14 years, and in that time, the only thing he’s called him is “Dr. Coburn.”
“None of us would ever call him ‘Tom,’” says Hart, the Oklahoma Republican’s spokesman. “His friends call him that, but in a professional capacity, it’s always ‘Dr. Coburn.’”
Coburn’s medical bona fides have lent him credibility on health care issues, but the name has sometimes been turned against him: He’s been dubbed “Dr. No” for his frequent opposition to measures he considers unconstitutional. But he clearly derives his identity from his first career, not his current one: Call the Senator’s office and a chipper voice greets you: “Dr. Coburn’s office!”
Some Members like to have their under-the-Dome status recognized. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in 2009 asked a witness testifying before her to address her as “Senator,” not “ma’am.”
“I worked so hard to get that title,” she informed the witness.