By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers
They call the 12 House appropriations subcommittee chairmen "cardinals," a bow to their power on the all-important money panel. But one of the 12 wouldn't mind a different title: House mom. "I think that's an apt description of how I view my role," says Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the legislative branch subcommittee.
Her panel is kind of a stinker. While others fund big projects sought by cabinet agencies like the Pentagon, Wasserman Schultz gets stuck overseeing agencies that support the House and listening to the grumblings of whiny members. "I'm kind of the central clearinghouse for complaints," she says. But Wasserman Schultz, who is prominent among the rising generation of party leaders, likes being an advocate for the House staffers. "I'm very lucky. I have a really cool job, and it's a privilege to go to bat for them," she says.
One example: For two years she has pushed House officers to demand that the food contractor offer better and cheaper chow in the House cafeterias. The firm has moved slowly, but she's not backing down. "I don't think they've gone far enough," she says of the one "value meal" offered each day. That's not enough choice, she says. "I get a lot of complaints from staff." So she's endorsed a radical suggestion: letting Subway in to sell its $5 subs.
It's not like she hasn't handled food complaints before. "I just had an argument with my 6-year-old about her wanting to start buying hot lunch. Only the only thing she eats is the bagel and cream cheese, and I'm not spending $4 a day for a bagel and cream cheese when I can buy a whole bag of bagels for $4."
Another reason Wasserman Schultz is so focused on employees is her past experience as a staffer in the Florida legislature. "We have people who spend the better part of their lives every day at work, and making sure that the quality of their lives is strong is very important," she says. "These kids are working their hearts out for you."
But in the end, it's her maternal instincts that rule. "Den mother is a nice way to put it."
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.