A Day in the Life of a Committee

By Lucier, James P. | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

A Day in the Life of a Committee


Lucier, James P., The World and I


What Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan says at a hearing can make or break the world's financial centers.

It is 10:00 A.M. on June 10, an hour before the hearing of the Joint Economic Committee (JEC), and already Nita Morgan, the committee's administrative assistant, is bustling around Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building, the huge, three-tiered hearing room where all the committees try to hold their really big hearings. And this is a big one: The only witness is Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Board of Governors, Federal Reserve System.

So while Morgan is making sure that 20 microphones are set up for each of the Joint Committee's members--10 from the House of Representatives and 10 from the Senate--and seeing that each of the 20 places on the U-shaped podium has a hearing memorandum placed neatly and squarely ready for each member, other people are taking note of what will or will not be said here today.

In London, it is the middle of the afternoon and traders are waiting expectantly for the news from Washington. In New York, the floor of the New York Stock Exchange has already tuned in to the Bloomberg News terminals so as to be the first to hear the news, and in Washington, NASDAQ is at the ready.

At the Tokyo Stock Exchange, it is 10:00 P.M., and it will be after 11:00 P.M. when Greenspan's words are flashed to Asia, but, with Asian economies in chaos, the traders are used to staying up late. The situation is the same with the Hang Seng in Hong Kong. What Greenspan says today can make or break them all. Didn't the markets take a tumble two years ago in an otherwise boring speech when just a couple of words fell from his mouth about detecting "an unnatural exuberance" in the market expansion? When Greenspan speaks, who knows what will happen?

Keeping order

Meanwhile, Megan Marquardt, a Joint Committee summer intern and a finance and economics major at the University of Iowa, is busily carrying sweating glass pitchers of water and trays of glasses to be distributed among the 20 microphones. Members sometimes get carried away with their questioning, and they have to be prepared to clear their throats.

No detail is too small, but Marquardt loves it. She's only been in Washington a week and a half and she's already onstage, as it were, as the TV lights come up and the cameramen practice focusing. "It's like freshman year all over again," she says. "Basically we interns do the logistics of setting up hearings, as well as some research and constituent service." Besides, how many econ majors have the chance to put out water for Alan Greenspan?

Morgan still finds things to do that have been undone, or at least need checking. When did she first find out that there would be a Greenspan hearing on June 10? "About three weeks ago, I got word," she said, "plenty of time to get ready. I make sure that the hearing room is ready, that the staff assistants have organized the briefing books, that the press releases and the opening statements of members have been distributed to the press, and that the court reporter is on hand to make the transcript."

The court reporter in this case is another familiar sight on Capitol Hill, Jane Beach of Ace-Federal Court Reporters, an outside firm that does work not only for Congress but for federal agencies, private meetings, and yes, even courts. Beach's neat, upswept bouffant hairdo is distinctive, as she precisely and silently reutters every word that is spoken into her steno-mask machine. She has been a fixture since the Watergate hearings of 1972.

Now Beach is doing Whitewater grand jury testimony and whatever else comes along that is really important. "One time a while back," she reminisces, "they had me in Lorton Prison in deep security taking down an interview with a guy who shot a young boy just because he wanted to kill. The next day I was up here for a full Senate Appropriations Committee hearing.

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