Unsung Heroes Have the Hill’s Truly Odd Jobs

Posted December 12, 2008 at 3:46pm

Unsung heroes with unsung jobs are around every corner of the House of Representatives. Beyond the staffers and the press secretaries, there are hundreds of behind-the-scenes employees who work tirelessly to keep the trains running on time. Here are a few of those people who have some rather unusual but important jobs.

Pulp Mission

As greening becomes trendier, Brandon Taliaferro becomes more popular.

“I’m a baby celebrity,” jokes the man who is responsible for composting waste from the House cafeterias. On any given weekday, Taliaferro can be found in a room near the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria surrounded by garbage bags filled with pineapple heads, pizza scraps, napkins and the like. He is tasked with donning latex gloves, breathing through his mouth and sorting through the bags to make sure only biodegradable items make their way into the off-site compost pile. On a busy day, Taliaferro will sort 10 bins.

“I see a lot of stuff I don’t want to eat,” he said as he sorted through the pile on a chilly December day, occasionally screwing a white cap off of a water bottle and tossing it into the landfill pile. “Those can’t go in.”

The trash areas of each cafeteria are divided into pails of garbage that will be sent to a landfill and pails of paper goods, food scraps and some plastic that can be composted. Throughout the day, Taliaferro collects these bags from the cafeterias, checks to make sure items that can’t be composted — like the water bottle caps — are separated out and then feeds the waste into a very loud $75,000 machine that spits out what looks like very colorful coleslaw. This mixture is then taken to a compost pile, and after 90 days, the remnants of staffers’ lunches biodegrade. Taliaferro said the job makes him feel like he’s making a difference in the world.

“This is a new experience because we’re saving the landfills,” he said. “I get a lot of compliments everyday. People are like ‘you’re the compostable guy!’ I like it.”

Sound Bites

“A lot of people don’t even know we’re tucked away down here,” Michael McQuerry said as he opened a door in the House Recording Studio in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building. McQuerry, a special assistant to the Chief Administrative Officer, spends his days working the soundboards in the studio as Members record video and radio segments to be aired in their home districts.

“It gets personal. It’s about the district, and you learn a lot,” he said. “Some of the things you agree with and some you don’t, but your job isn’t to [have an opinion], it’s to make sure they sound good.”

Not too long ago, McQuerry worked in a Member’s office during the day and hosted a late-night radio show called “Night Talk.” Eventually the schedule wore on him and forced him to stop hosting. Luckily, he found a way to put his experience to good use in the House.

Each day, McQuerry sits behind a glass wall as Members record television and radio pieces to be aired in the districts. After they are finished, he goes through the tape and cuts out the “ums,” long pauses and other errors. He then e-mails the file back to the Member.

“It’s sort of like ‘Frasier,’ and I’m like his assistant pushing the buttons,” he said.

Address Booker

Ever wonder how Members know where each of their constituents lives? This job falls on Chris Naughton in the House Office of Mailing Services; his job is to save Members time and money by compiling constituent addresses.

Each time a Congressman submits a raw address list — usually obtained from his individual secretary of State or from constituent management data entry usually done by interns — Naughton and his partner, Kevin Kelley, edit it. Their job is to check the national change of address registry to make sure constituents haven’t relocated, delete any duplicates from the list and eliminate all listings that are out of the Members’ district.

“Sometimes they’ll give us five different files, and we’ll merge them so the output is very clean and standardized,” Naughton said.

The list is then e-mailed to the Member for his use — though Naughton is quick to say these lists are used for franking, not campaign literature. Targeted lists can be created based on gender and age, but not party.

Over the course of the year, Naughton will compile some 100 million addresses, though not every Member takes advantage.

“We do have our regulars who do a lot of work through us and then some who don’t,” Naughton said, estimating that about 200 Members per term use his service.

In addition to ensuring that mailings go the right place, the process also saves the House some $6 million on postage each year.

“We save a lot of money by doing the data processing,” he said.

Framing It

Members love to hang photos, signed bills and other mementos of their accomplishments. Keith Brown is responsible for making sure these items are displayed in all their glory in the perfect frame.

Brown spends his days working among other craftsmen in the House Cabinet Shop tucked behind the Rayburn House Office Building. Two rooms that are filled with glass, rulers, wood and matting act as his office and work space.

“I enjoy it because I enjoy seeing people happy,” he said. “That makes me happy, and that makes my job even better.”

Brown, a former truck driver, came to work in the cabinet shop about six months ago. Since then, his job has been to collect photos, paintings and whatever else Members want framed, mat the items and build the frames.

“The hardest part is having multiple pictures,” he said. “When the transition is over and everybody is back in the swing of things, I get 20 or 50 pictures at a time.”

Brown builds each frame from scratch and is allotted a 30-day turn around time. He said that on a good day, he can make one in 20 minutes.

“What I do is a three-step process. I measure the picture, I cut the frame, I mat the picture and then I put it together,” he said, adding, “I haven’t had any complaints from any staffers or any Members at all about my framing skills. I try to think about it like it’s my own frame.”