Jo-Marie St. Martin may be the most influential woman working in Congress whom you’ve never heard of.
As general counsel and chief of legislative operations for Speaker John Boehner, St. Martin holds the distinction of being the most senior female staffer in the House. She sits at the center of the Ohio Republican’s power structure, charged with overseeing his floor and legal operations.
“She has the Speaker’s absolute trust,” one Republican lobbyist said.
Chief institutionalist among a staff of institutionalists, St. Martin speaks with Boehner daily and is one of the few senior aides with whom the Speaker consults on major decisions. She has worked for Boehner in various capacities for the past 11 years.
“Jo-Marie is an invaluable counselor who helps ensure the House truly functions — as it should — as the Peoples’ House,” Boehner told Roll Call in a statement.
St. Martin’s abilities were on display during last month’s continuing resolution debate; she played a critical role helping oversee a rare open process that resulted in hours of debate on hundreds of amendments.
“I tell Boehner in order to accomplish this, this is what we are going to face, and he’s fine, he understands,” St. Martin said in a recent interview. “He’s like, ‘Yes, I understand that, we can handle that and we can explain it, and as long as everyone knows what they are doing and they are informed, they are grown-ups and they can make decisions.’”
St. Martin said she sees her role as a “caretaker” — making sure Boehner’s vision for the House is carried out.
“What I provide for him is that expertise and guidance about what it is that is regular order under the House rules and what it is we should be doing and how we should be doing it,” St. Martin said.
During the CR debate, House Republicans broke precedent by bringing legislation to the floor under an open rule. “It was an appropriate thing to do, and it was the right thing to do,” St. Martin said.
Colleagues say St. Martin’s strengths are her steadiness and knowledge of how the chamber operates.
“She’s very strong and determined, and I think because of that she can stay focused on the goal,” said Hugh Halpern, staff director for the House Rules Committee who has worked with her for more than a decade.
St. Martin is also credited with the relatively smooth passage of last month’s CR; those who know her say she understands committee structure — having served for more than a decade on the House Education and Workforce Committee— and has a keen sense of how politics can affect issues.
“It’s rare to find someone like her who has the combination of her depth in procedural, legal and political matters,” one lobbyist said. “For that reason, she is uniquely valuable to the Speaker as general counsel.”
Like many in Boehner’s inner circle, St. Martin is a longtime aide. She first met Boehner when he was a freshman in 1991. Boehner was part of the Gang of Seven, a group of Members that took on the House establishment, successfully closing the House Bank and exposing illegal cash-for-stamps deals at the House Post Office.
“Boehner was very much of that bolt of cloth, and I think it’s still there, it’s just he’s much more the statesman now,” St. Martin said.
St. Martin began working closely with Boehner after he was ejected from leadership in 1998 and returned to what was then called the Education and Labor Committee. Serving as general counsel to then-Chairman Bill Goodling (Pa.), St. Martin counseled Boehner on the committee process.
Then, when Boehner assumed the chairmanship of the committee in 2001, he asked St. Martin to stay on as general counsel. In that position, she helped Boehner move pension and education legislation. And when Boehner won the job of Majority Leader in 2006, St. Martin became his floor director, scheduling all the bills of the House.
Now, she oversees floor operations, and as part of her legal portfolio, she monitors the House General Counsel’s office and acts as Boehner’s in-house counsel. She also works on issues related to the Steering Committee, House rules and Congressional oversight.
St. Martin became the most senior female House staffer after Boehner’s longtime chief of staff, Paula Nowakowski, died suddenly of a heart attack just over a year ago.
Still, St. Martin insists that her gender is a nonissue.
“The thing I do love about Boehner is he honestly doesn’t see me as a woman. ... He really sees us as staffers who do our jobs, and I really don’t think Boehner has been given enough credit for that,” she said.
Still, she acknowledged she has helped mentor female staffers such as Anne Thorsen, Boehner’s floor director, over the years. “There again, we don’t see her as a woman,” St. Martin said. “She is a very good staffer who knows what she is doing and is very capable and competent and moves forward that way.”
St. Martin said hopes to continue to mentor staff and work to advance Boehner’s conservative vision for the House.
“This is either my 11th year working for him or my 21st year knowing him,” St. Martin said. “Just making sure that [his conservative agenda] happens has become so much a part of me, it’s pretty much a part of my DNA.”