Meet the punk rock-loving ‘voice of Congress’ soothing House watchers through the pandemic

Fugazi inspired him during impeachment. Now he listens to The Cure

Loading the player...
Posted May 27, 2020 at 6:00am

Back in December, as the impeachment of President Donald Trump was in full swing, House reading clerk Joe Novotny would tap into an unexpected source as he prepared for a long day in the chamber.

“I was listening to a lot of D.C. punk rock, like Minor Threat, Bad Brains and Fugazi,” said Novotny. It’s been three decades since those bands peaked in popularity, but “they still resonate for my mood of just kind of getting my armor on.”

You may not know who Novotny is, but if you’ve ever watched House proceedings on C-SPAN, you’ve almost certainly heard his voice. For the past 10 years he’s been a steady presence in front of the microphone, reading aloud the text of bills, amendments and resolutions. When it came time to recite the articles of impeachment on the House floor, he was the one who did it.

“It’s almost like that feeling when you go to the gym and you just have to get yourself pumped up,” said Novotny. “It doesn’t have a calming effect, it has quite the opposite. But I think in a stressful environment, sometimes you need to be prepared, because it just gets you primed for what might be coming.”

Back in early March when I first sat down with Novotny, he was reflecting on his 10 years as reading clerk, the first openly gay person to hold the position. Most of the discussion focused on what it was like to serve in that role at such an historic moment.

It’s an understatement to say the world has changed dramatically since March, and Congress is no exception. The coronavirus pandemic and its social distancing requirements have forced the House to adjust on the fly, and even adopt temporary procedures such as proxy voting that were once considered nonstarters.

Though the floor schedule has been light this spring as House members mostly stayed away from Washington, Novotny said “there’s still a tremendous amount of work to do behind the scenes.” That includes lots of meetings and conversations on how to execute things like proxy voting, and “how to adapt our process and make information accessible to staff who are working remotely.”  

Back in March, as Novotny reflected on the past 10 years in his job, 2020 was already shaping up to be a historic year. To say the world has changed since then is an understatement.

Now when he’s at the rostrum, Novotny wears a mask, secured over his beard. During a recent session, the face covering seemed to disrupt his facial hair more than his reading voice.

“It is an adjustment, but one that I am quickly getting used to,” he told me in an email. “Making sure I am heard well and enunciating words can be a little hard with a mask, but so far it seems to work OK.”

Novotny’s musical rotation isn’t immune to change either. “My go-to lately has been bands like Luna, Galaxie 500, and Best Coast,” he said. “Things that are a bit more calming, especially in light of everything that has been happening lately. In fact, I’ve been rediscovering a lot of my old favorites: Joy Division and The Cure.”

Novotny has been on Capitol Hill for almost 30 years. In a sense, it’s where he grew up. Before becoming reading clerk, he got his start as a House page and then went on to work for California Rep. George Miller.

On an ordinary day, Novotny will spend time researching bills, especially when they require him to pronounce someone’s name. Listening to him describe his duties, it’s clear he pays attention to detail.

“You always want to bear in mind that every time you get up there, it’s not about you. It’s about the institution,” said Novotny, who is one of the chamber’s two reading clerks. (The other is Susan Cole.)

Commanding the microphone takes training and preparation. Novotny worked with a speech coach to improve his breathing and learn to project as much as possible with his natural speaking voice.

Novotny tends to remember his flubs, like when he made the mistake of pronouncing “Nevada” as “Ne-VAH-duh” during a high-profile vote at the beginning of the current Congress. He said Rep. Dina Titus “schooled” him when she stepped to the mic and said “It’s Ne-VA-duh” before casting her vote for Nancy Pelosi to become speaker of the House. Novotny blames his Chicago roots for that one.

The gig has turned Novotny into a bit of a celebrity among diehard C-SPAN watchers.

“You’re that guy,” people will sometimes say to him. “It’s very humbling and it’s incredibly flattering when people recognize you, and it makes them happy.”

Novotny acknowledges the historic nature of his role, and how much it means to him personally to be an openly gay man serving in such as visible position.

“Just being able to be me and not having to hide anything about myself has been so incredible, because I didn’t grow up in the environment where it was OK to do that at that point in time,” he said. Even in the decade since he first took his job as reading clerk, a lot has changed, he said, pointing to Pete Buttigieg’s recent bid for the Democratic nomination. “Having a presidential candidate who is openly gay, I never thought I would see that.”