Nickles: Humor Makes Budget Work Add Up

Posted March 18, 2009 at 4:35pm

In my 24 years in the Senate, I can remember many times when frustration, partisanship, egos or tempers would rise to the surface. Those things are inevitable when people are working with great conviction toward goals that oftentimes have big consequences for our country.

[IMGCAP(1)]But I also found that, more often than not, the shared experience of the Senate and those who serve there generates a sense of community — amusing moments, genuine friendships among colleagues and staff, the shared excitement when Bono visits the Capitol — all these things that keep Congress civil and that are the specialty of Heard on the Hill.

Even in the Budget Committee, where staff members toil over charts, formulas and numbers with so many zeros the eyes become crossed, there was room for humor and collegiality.

Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is infamous for the robust collection of charts he utilizes during his committee presentations. He always had — and still has — dozens and dozens. He even had a special case for all those charts. Even better, he didn’t take himself so seriously that he couldn’t enjoy a mutual chuckle every time he began opening comments and motioned to the aide whose turn it was to flip charts during his remarks. He would often say, “You might be surprised to know, I have a chart for that.—

We needed reasons to share a smile during my first year as Budget chairman.

The 2003 budget season was a somewhat contentious time — Republicans were crafting a budget resolution that called for tax cuts. Economic growth had slowed somewhat — not to the degree of today’s concerns, but the general idea was that we needed some stimulus and needed it now. Not everyone agreed. So we had significant debate, and it was a very divided series of votes in committee on that budget.

In the midst of this, I became a grandfather for the third time. My first grandson, Nicholas Fenton Rossiter, was born March 13, the afternoon of our first day of markup in the committee.

After returning to the Budget Committee the next day, Senators took their seats around the big table and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who was one of my mentors in the ways of the Senate and the respect and dignity for the institution and its individual Members, asked if he could say a few words before we began.

He asked a few questions about my new grandson and shared a verse of poetry, which my daughter keeps to this day:

First in thy father’s arms thou didst weep,
While those around you smiled.
So live that in thy lasting’s sleep,
Thou mayest smile
While those around you weep.

These are simple moments, but they illustrate an appreciation of the shared experience of Capitol Hill, which is so important in trying times.

I still believe serving and working in the Senate is a wonderful privilege and honor made even better with a sense of humor.

Roll Call has covered the politics and rivalries and election fights and squabbling for more than 50 years. But Heard on the Hill always provides a little glimpse at the lighter and more personal side of Congress. Happy birthday, HOH.

Former Sen. Don Nickles (R) represented Oklahoma for 24 years and is a former Republican Whip and Budget chairman.