It’s Speaker John A. Boehner who is known for public weeping, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came close to waterworks last week, as the chamber heaped praised on departing Senate insider and GOP floor staffer David Schiappa, the secretary for the minority.
“I’m not much for, um,” Reid paused, grimaced and gazed down at his tightly clasped hands, “being very emotional, but if there were ever a time I felt like shedding a tear it was in saying, as I did, goodbye to David.” Then the Nevada Democrat quoted William Shakespeare, observing that parting with Schiappa, who has worked in the Senate for 29 years was, indeed, “such sweet sorrow.”
Reid wasn’t the only senator to wax poetic while paying tribute to Schiappa and wishing him well in his new endeavor as the vice president of the lobbying outfit Duberstein Group Inc.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., paraphrased “Roots” author Alex Haley. “When an old person dies, it’s like a library burning down.” Saving the speech from sounding like a eulogy, Alexander acknowledged that Schiappa is “neither old, nor dying,” only walking out the door with volumes of wisdom, knowledge and experience that were especially helpful to a Senate brimming with first-term members.
“With his leaving after 30 years, a number of volumes from the Senate library are going out the door. We won’t have that wisdom, that experience, or that knowledge that has been so valuable to us, and that has been especially important to the Senate where nearly half the members are in their first term,” Alexander said. “This is an institution that depends on precedent, understanding and respect of its strengths over a long period of time.”
Like the secretary of the Senate, the sergeant-at-arms, the chaplain and the parliamentarian, the majority and minority secretaries are actually elected officers of the Senate. Schiappa’s successor, Laura Dove, was elected Aug. 1. Dove had worked under Schiappa, among others, during her previous stint with the Senate. She’s also literally a member of the Senate family — she’s the daughter of former Parliamentarian Robert Dove.
Schiappa is the latest on a long list of veteran staffers to leave in recent years, raising questions about institutional memory.
“Dave Schiappa is a prime example of an institutionalist, whose deep knowledge serves to connect the present-day Senate with traditions rooted in time. If properly understood, those traditions will be honored, and will bring esteem upon the body,” said Martin B. Gold, the author of “Senate Procedure and Practice” and a former senior aide to multiple GOP leaders.
“When that institutional memory is lost, it is very hard to replace,” Gold said. “Without a core of persons like Dave Schiappa, who revere the Senate and respect its history, the institution is inevitably weakened. I fear that loss is accelerating.”
Gold worked with Schiappa as floor adviser and counsel to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
Former Senate Parliamentarian Alan Frumin had nothing but praise for Schiappa. “He brought a keen intelligence, bedrock integrity, and marvelous sense of humor to every meeting I ever had with him, and was a stellar examplar of civility (and a stress-buster) in an arena where the constant political pressure and stress can just grind an individual to dust. I still believe that the Senate was designed by the Framers for conciliation and compromise, and that its rules, precedents and procedures have evolved consistent with the Framers’ design. If more of the elected members of the body embraced Dave Schiappa’s approach to his work, it would be a far better place,” Frumin said in an email.
Martin Paone, a longtime Democratic staffer who served as both majority and minority secretary, explained the positions in a 2010 oral history interview with the Senate historical office.
“As the majority secretary, you work with them on trying to set that schedule. And with the chairmen, ‘What bill do you want to call up next?’ The minority secretary is: ‘Okay, you’re finding out what bill is coming up next,’” Paone said. “You then discuss with the minority leader, ‘These are the bills, this is the next item, how do we want to react to it? Do we have things we want to do to it?’”
In recent years, majority leaders have more frequently restricted the offering of extraneous amendments (and sometimes even germane ones) through a procedural device known as “filling the amendment tree” to keep tighter control of the floor.
Paone was Schiappa’s opposite on the Democratic side when he left in 2008. When he retired, he told CQ Roll Call that he and Schiappa would joke about trading speech lines depending on which party held the majority.
Schiappa’s parliamentary expertise was among the qualities cited in a lengthy resolution honoring his legacy as an “invaluable member of the Senate family.”
As secretary of the minority, Schiappa acted as a liaison between Republican and Democratic leadership. His expert wheeling and dealing won him a cowboy catcall of sorts from Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the Republican Policy Committee chairman. The veteran staffer navigated politics according to the “Code of the West,” Barrasso said. Tenants of the code include “live with courage,” “take pride in your work” and “speak less and say more.”
“This is a man, who, when he speaks, we all listen,” he said.
Schiappa was around until the end of the evening on Aug. 1, when the chamber finished up legislative business ahead of the August recess. He could be seen on the floor, engaged as always in the pre-recess deal-making. Other top leadership staffers from both sides of the aisle bid Schiappa farewell on the floor as senators gave the final speeches before the break, and he sat through one final quorum call.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., chose to quote Schiappa himself.
“We’ll all miss his Dave-isms, whether he’s reporting that some senator just showed up in the cloakroom in a ‘3-point stance’ or that the week is shaping up to be a ‘nothing burger,’” he said.
Schiappa’s job often kept him in the chamber long after the lights went out, “finishing up the business of the day, sending out emails, tying up loose ends — or ‘loose tarps,’ as he might put it.
“We’re all glad you finally have a little predictability in your life,” McConnell added.