A Senate Veteran Moves to K Street

Posted January 30, 2008 at 6:40pm

Martin Paone has been a member of the Senate Democratic floor staff for so long he jokes that he came with the furniture. The outgoing Secretary for the Majority has served under four Democratic leaders and has helped Democrats shape legislative strategy since he joined the Cloakroom in 1979.

The long-serving Secretary, who is known to find humor in any floor proceeding, retires from his post today, leaving behind the Senate rule book to join the lobbying firm Timmons and Co.

“I’ve got 32 years in, and after a while, you kind of realize there’s probably something else out there. You don’t know what, but you kind of wonder,” Paone said.

The Secretary for the Majority advises leadership on floor strategy, using the parliamentary rule book to coach legislation through the chamber. The job is one that demands both institutional and tactical knowledge, and as Paone’s former deputy and newly installed Secretary Lula Davis says, “requires keeping a cool head and thinking about what’s coming up.” Paone more bluntly puts it as avoiding a “hit in the face by a two-by-four.”

“Sometimes you don’t know what the leader is going to do. You might have been on a phone call in the Cloakroom, and the next thing you know, there’s two amendments on the floor and bang, you’re hit,” said Paone, who worked as assistant secretary before being appointed Secretary for the Minority by then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 1995.

The mild-mannered Paone also has been the one to help pull off the surprise attack.

In the mid-1990s under Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Paone spotted a hole in the amendment tree that allowed Massachusetts Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry to slip in a vote on a minimum-wage increase. The amendment failed, but the two Senators succeeded in getting their colleagues’ vote on the issue recorded.

Kevin Kayes, who was Senate assistant parliamentarian from 1987 to 2000 and worked with Paone, said the outgoing Secretary established his institutional knowledge during his first years with then-Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).

“Byrd relied a whole lot on Senate procedures to push work on the floor, and he expected his staff to know as much as he did,” Kayes said. “Because of that, Marty had to learn everything.”

Of the Democratic leaders he has worked for, Paone said “there’s no question Byrd was the best when it came to procedure.” The West Virginian pulled out Senate rules like magic tricks and only consulted his floor staff to help fulfill his legislative goals.

Paone said his role changed once then-Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) replaced Byrd as Majority Leader in 1989.

“I became more involved,” recalled Paone, who at the time was on the Democratic Policy Committee floor staff. “With Mitchell, you would outline the options for him and he would pick. It also became that way with Sen. Daschle. All you had to do was lay out the options for him, and he would pick.”

The Revere, Mass., native, who speaks with a Boston accent, came into his Congressional career by way of the Senate parking lot, where he worked as an attendant while attending graduate school at Georgetown University in the 1970s.

Paone earned his master’s degree in Russian studies in 1978, writing a thesis on Eastern European energy policy. Paone expected to find work at an energy company.

Instead, he got hired to work in the Democratic Cloakroom, where he met his wife, Ruby, and hasn’t left the Senate since.

Over the years, Paone has consulted with rank-and-file Members, advising them on how to introduce an amendment and offering orientation classes to the newly elected. He said veteran Members such as Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) are often more focused on legislation in their committees, but even they come to his third floor office with institutional questions.

“I’m always there to help. Sometimes we hear about an amendment someone wants to offer, but leadership doesn’t want it offered because it’ll put them in a bad position,” Paone explained. “What I have to do is ask [the Member] to talk to the leader, and explain the process. If they still decide to offer the amendment, they can, but they have to talk with the leader.”

Forty percent of the job is putting out fires, Paone says with a smile, and many of those are just “brush fires, little things that just need explaining.” This is where his role with freshman Members is crucial.

“Marty showed me the way to the wilderness,” first-term Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) quipped, noting Paone was especially helpful during negotiations leading up to the 2005 “Gang of 14” agreement, the bipartisan group set up to prevent filibusters of conservative appellate court nominees.

Paone has even counseled Republicans on occasion, showing perhaps that the office of the Secretary is less a war room than a classroom.

“I’ve gone to him with questions on parliamentary tactics and always gotten a straight answer,” Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said.

Indeed, Paone’s Republican counterpart, David Schiappa, said the two work together constantly and serve as the go-betweens for their respective leaders. Schiappa, who has worked across the aisle from Paone for 23 years, said the ultimate goal for the two secretaries is to keep things moving forward.

“A lot of what we do is feel out what the other side will agree to, working closer and closer until we can reach an agreement,” Schiappa said. Because so much of the Senate’s business is done by unanimous consent, Schiappa said he is aiming for compromise more often than anything else, and because both secretaries have served in the majority and the minority, there are few surprises they can pull on one another.

“Dave and I joke about trading each other’s speeches,” Paone said, reciting them both: “I’ll label him as the big obstructionist, and he labels me as the person that’s trying to take away their rights.”

Paone’s experience of influencing the legislative process from all angles will serve him well in the private sector, says former colleague Kayes, who left the Hill to work at Quinn Gillespie & Associates.

Though he does not have contacts in business or on K Street, Paone’s understanding of procedure and his relationships with Members of the “most exclusive club” are assets in the private sector.

“People will want to help him because he was always so helpful to everyone,” Kayes said.

At Timmons, Paone will be charged with advising clients on the legislative process, said firm President Larry Harlow.

Paone will use the next year to adjust to his new trade and most likely transition into lobbying after his statutorily mandated one-year cooling-off period.

Timmons, one of the city’s oldest lobbying firms, counts American Petroleum Institute, DaimlerChrysler, Union Pacific Corp. and Visa as clients.

Even as he settles into his new role, it will be tough for Paone, a father of three — one in high school and two in college — to forget the chamber where he has been an integral part for more than three decades.

“I’ll be watching the floor with interest, and will always be just a phone call away.”