Heard on the Hill

Revealed: An Exclusive Ways and Means Secret Tradition

Committee members whose names start with P have passed along guardianship of a cactus for 25 years

The Pease Cactus sits in the Rayburn Building office of Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., on Thursday after it was given to him by Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Congress is an institution full of secret traditions, but perhaps the most secret is the 25-year-old bipartisan one of handing down a cactus to certain members of the Ways and Means Committee.

Owners of the Pease Cactus, named for Ohio Democrat Don Pease and called the “Ps Cactus” for short, are an exclusive group of seven past and present committee members. So exclusive that Chairman Kevin Brady didn’t even know about the tradition until now.

“I’m sure there are lots of these sorts of traditions within committees. This is a really little one. It’s the most exclusive subset of the Ways and Means Committee,” former Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota said.

“I think we’ve all tried to keep the cactus going and keep the tradition alive, so I’m glad to know it’s still happening,” said former Rep. Lewis F. Payne Jr., a Virginia Democrat who was caretaker of the cactus more than two decades ago.

The owner has to be on the committee, has to have a name that starts with a P, has to agree to love the cactus until he or she retires and has to hand it off to a member of the other party when that time comes.

That’s why it’s on the move — Rep. Pat Tiberi is retiring.

Tiberi handed the cactus off to Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. of New Jersey on Wednesday in a sacred ceremony that Pomeroy returned to attend.

(Courtesy Rep. Pat Tiberi's office)
Past and present owners sitting with the cactus. From left: Reps. Earl Pomeroy, Pat Tiberi, Bill Pascrell Jr. (Rep. Pat Tiberi's office)

“[Owners] serve as guardians of this prickly but prized plant — that describes the Ways and Means Committee, doesn’t it?” Pascrell said.

“They showed up with the cactus plant and I said, ‘Wow, I have to take care of this cactus plant?’” Pascrell recalled of his handoff.  “It has to be very delicately treated. It’s just there just staring at me. It’s at the table in front of my desk.”

The congressman heard myths of the cactus but wasn’t sure if it really existed until Tiberi chose him as the next owner.

“It was an honor to present the Pease cactus, started by the late Congressman Don Pease, to my dear friend and colleague Bill Pascrell,” Tiberi said in a statement. “I am grateful to continue this tradition with Bill and to have been joined by Earl for the presentation. I am thankful for my friendships across the aisle and the chance to recognize them today.”

Pascrell called Tiberi “a very special friend of mine and we wish him well with his future life in Ohio. He has a great smile on his face now that he’s leaving, I told him.”

Pomeroy attended the handoff to show the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, he said, since he was the guardian of the cactus before Tiberi.

“[This is] one corner of the Congress where bipartisanship and amicable traditions are flourishing,” Pomeroy said. “I’m very proud to have been in the chain of succession because I really have great respect for those who have had the cactus before me and after me.”

A list of former owners comes with the cactus. (Courtesy of Rep. Bill Pascrell's office)
A list of former owners comes with the cactus. (Rep. Bill Pascrell's office)

The tradition started in 1992 with Pease. He passed off the plant to his committee colleague from the other side of the aisle, former Texas Republican James Jarrell Pickle.

It was Pickle who decided that the tradition should continue with only members of Ways and Means whose name started with P. He gave it to Payne in 1994.

“It’s nice that it’s continued. It was a nice gift from Jake Pickle, who I greatly admired, when he had given it to me and indicated that it had been owned by people whose named started with ‘P’ on the Ways and Means Committee,” the Virginia Democrat said. “Hence Pease and Pickle and Payne and then Portman.”

When Payne was retiring, he handed it off to then-congressman Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, in 1996.

“He was a Republican and I was a Democrat, but we had traveled together, and Rob and his wife, Jane, and Susan, my wife, and I had gotten to be friends. Plus, I don’t know who else was on the committee at the time whose name started with P, and Rob may have been the only choice,” Payne said. “Anyway, he was a good choice.”

Portman held onto it until he joined George W. Bush’s administration in 2005. He handed it off to Pomeroy. Before Pomeroy retired in 2010, he gave it to Tiberi, who had it for seven years.

“Upon my departure from Congress, I liked the bipartisan tradition,” Pomeroy said. “His first name had a P, Pat Tiberi, [so] I expanded this tradition to not just surnames.”

Pomeroy handed a six-foot tall cactus off to Tiberi. The cactus started to wither under Tiberi’s ownership and had to be propagated, which means pads get cut off and new roots start growing. It’s now about half the height it was when Tiberi received it.

“Bill Pascrell is inheriting a perfectly healthy Ps cactus,” Pomeroy said.

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