House Reading Clerk Savors His Vocal Role

Posted March 8, 2010 at 6:43pm

Joe Novotny first became hooked on the policy and politics of Congress when he was a House page, tasked with hanging the flags above the Capitol that Members then hand out to constituents.

Almost two decades later, he is the newest House reading clerk — and memories of his high school days of running around the House floor are flooding back.

“It still hasn’t really hit me in a lot of ways,” Novotny said in a recent interview. “Ironically, when we were pages, we actually had the utmost respect for the reading clerks. We were always a little bit in awe of them because truly you are the face and you are representing the House of Representatives.”

A Chicago native, Novotny grew up two miles from Wrigley Field and attended public school until the eighth grade. But his decision to go to a local private school — Gordon Tech High School — ultimately determined his career path. Through an agreement between the school and then-Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), Novotny learned of the House Page Program and joined.

He never really left. Novotny worked his way up the ladder from an intern in Rostenkowski’s office to chief clerk on the House Education and Labor Committee. His newest position will return him to the House floor, where he’ll act as the voice of the chamber when he reads aloud bill titles, amendments and any message that needs to be conveyed to Members.

Novotny brings years of procedural knowledge to the position, beginning with his page experience in 1991. He spent the last nine years on the education panel, organizing and learning the mountain of information that goes through the committee every year.

Novotny has “really perfected the skill of being a committee clerk,” said John Lawrence, the chief of staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who first met Novotny while working for Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). Though he hasn’t worked directly with Novotny in about five years, Lawrence remembers him as a “diligent worker” who could handle whatever was thrown at him.

[IMGCAP(1)]”He really since high school has been a person who’s fundamentally committed to the operations of the Congress,” Lawrence said. “He’s not a particularly political or partisan person. He’s somebody who in his job makes sure the institution operates in a fair and efficient manner.”

Getting that level of expertise — and respect — has meant countless long nights working on major legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act and the Employee Free Choice Act.

Most recently, Novotny pulled an all-nighter with Members to work on health care reform. At about 4 a.m., personalities began to emerge, he said. Some Members and staffers downed coffee and sugar to keep going; others, like Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), brought meals into the committee room (Kucinich’s choice: hummus).

“I can honestly say that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced or been through,” he said. “You sit at the witness table where we have our sea of paper, our mountain of amendments that we’re considering, and after about the sixth hour, we had barely put a dent in it and you just begin to see the realization on the face of the Members that this was going to be a very, very long night.”

Such willingness to work has apparently impressed Miller, who kept Novotny on his staff for 15 years. Now chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, Miller said Novotny was an “incredibly valuable asset” to the committee.

“His unparalleled integrity and dedication helped our committee advance major policies that are making a difference in the lives of working families,” Miller said in a statement. “I know Joe will bring the same level of enthusiasm, expertise and steadfast commitment of service to his new role as House Reading Clerk.”

But while Novotny is now an expert on education and labor issues, he is having to learn new responsibilities in his new role. House officials told him about his first crack at reading on the floor only shortly beforehand — leaving no time, he said, for getting stage fright.

“I didn’t have the opportunity to be nervous,” he said, laughing. “It wasn’t until after the fact that I felt like my knees were going to buckle underneath me.”

But Novotny’s time in the House has presented him with plenty of nerve-racking situations to handle, beginning with his life-altering tenure as a page. In nine short months, he saw Mikhail Gorbachev speak, procured then-Gov. Bill Clinton a glass of water and watched with star-studded eyes the State of the Union.

“I still remember it like it was yesterday,” Novotny said. “Everything from the day it was so windy that I had to have a police officer help me put the flag up on the roof of the Capitol to when [New York Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman] used to throw us bagel parties.”