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Political secrets

Confession time: My first job in journalism was as a leg man. I just mentioned it in hopes you will take a minute or so to read on in hopes I will reveal what a leg man does for a big city newspaper. Spoiler alert: I will tell all.

Confession time: My first job in journalism was as a leg man. I just mentioned it in hopes you will take a minute or so to read on in hopes I will reveal what a leg man does for a big city newspaper. Spoiler alert: I will tell all. 

Reality Check:  Thanks to the internet, Facebook and other social media, news and rumors; flat out lies can be flashed around the world in seconds. For those of us who remember when people used to talk on the telephone or send each other letters or (in a hurry) telegrams, it is a brave new, interesting (sometimes frightening) world. When I first started on this beat, there was a persistent rumor about a pending (secret) bill to change the federal retirement. Back then there was only CSRS; FERS was years in the future. The rumor was this — I think — a secret bill was working its way through the House and Senate that would allow any federal worker or postal employee to retire, on full benefits, anytime his age and service reached 50 years. In other words someone could join the civil service at 20, work 30 years and leave with a pot of gold. Or come in at 30 and do 20. Or at age 40 and retire 10 years later. 

It sounded too good to be true, and for good reason. It wasn’t true.

Those of us who covered the federal beat usually got several letters (via snail-mail, with stamps – ask your grandfather) a week asking about status of the “combined 50 bill.”  They came from all over the country.  People wanted to believe it, I guess, because it made so much sense…to them. 

Anytime someone on the fed beat had a slow news day he/she could always write about the “50 bill” and its progress.  Or lack thereof.  It was legit because people cared. But it was also lazy on our part. But as a colleague said one time: “they (the readers) don’t believe it if you report that there isn’t such a bill working its way through the bowels of Washington.”  So we rounded up the usual suspects, including that one, each year. Mostly we reported on their progress year-after-year. Most were brought up in Congress but few made it to the committee level.  Year-after-year they came, we reported, feds reacted with fear and loathing, and nothing happened. Nothing changed. But things change.

Much of this happened in an era where feds, and especially postal workers, had their own committees—the House and the Senate Post Office-Civil Service Committees—on Capitol Hill. They acted as traffic cops shepherding through mostly positive legislation for feds and blocking things that would hurt civil servants. Most of the members on both committees were either from districts or states with lots of federal/postal/military people. Or from districts with a major military base, an IRS center, a VA hospital, a federal prison. 

When Sen. Mike Monroney (D-Okla.) chaired the Senate committee lots of federal agencies—the FAA, Postal Service and others — moved into his state. To the point where at one time the largest union in Oklahoma wasn’t the Teamsters or Steelworkers or SEIU, it was the American Federation of Government Employees. Most members of those committees either have a good thing for feds and postal workers or, if not, they enjoyed gifts—like cases of Jack Daniels and cash in plain envelopes, delivered by lobbyists. It was of a more corrupt, yet innocent period. Gotcha journalism hadn’t become fashionable yet.

But things have changed. Jurisdiction for federal worker matters has shifted to committees with very wide portfolios and mandates. Taking care of civil servants is the least of their concern.

So now with Congress—and seemingly the country—split, and with the White House, Senate and House of Representatives in control of one party, things appeared to have changed.

The so-called Usual Suspects bills will probably return this fall.  But this time they might not stumble and go away.

Recently, a fed remarked that “they” — the politicians—couldn’t take away or change a benefit. This reminded me of my first assignment as a leg man, i.e., a reporter who works for another reporter and is paid by that reporter, not the newspaper. That was me. One of my first assignments was to cover a vote in the House. It dealt with some federal employee matter and it had to be decided by midnight, else the House would be adjourned for the year. By 11:45 p.m. nothing happened. The debate went on. At five minutes to 12 a.m., I got up to go to a phone to tell my boss that the House was going to adjourn without action. As I walked into the Reporters Gallery, an old timer (he must have been at least 50) asked where I was going. I told him and pointed to the clock. “Sit down,” he said. “One minute to midnight.”

As we sat there, two ushers came into the House chamber with a ladder. They positioned it before the official House of Representatives clock. One of them climbed up and moved its hands back to 11:45. The debate continued for a few minutes, the issue was resolved and then, and only then, it became midnight.

Lesson learned:  They (meaning the pols) can do just about anything they want. Even make the clock run backward to buy more time.

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