Billy Pitts: Master of the House

“Everything is peppered with stories,” said Billy Pitts, the well-respected expert on House rules and procedures who can’t resist telling a story about his 26-year Hill career.

Most of Pitts’s stories recall a bygone era when the Republicans were clawing their way to the majority: The members, Democrats and Republicans alike, had bigger dreams, egos and flaws; the stakes seemed higher but the competition more gentlemanly.

Courtesy of Billy Pitts
Billy Pitts, left, and George Stephanopoulos, top floor assistants in the House, around 1986


His stories generally start with his father, William Pitts Sr., who worked for 41 years in the House as a Republican aide and passed his knowledge of the House to his son.

He told Pitts, who stepped down as staff director of the House Rules Committee in March, to “work unseen, be more than you seem,” and “if you hope to get anything done in Washington, you first have to understand how it’s done.”

Pitts is now a D.C.-based executive with Notification Technologies Inc., a California-based company that is developing communications technology.

Despite his insistence that he is “a backroom boy” — Pitts toiled for years as an aide in the House GOP cloakroom and to Rep. Bob Michel (R-Ill.), the former whip and minority leader — he has become a ubiquitous presence in Washington and Hollywood.

Pitts has appeared three times on the front page of The New York Times, pictured huddling or walking with congressional Republican luminaries. He was the House doorkeeper in the movie “Dave,” winning the role after the Democrats’ doorkeeper did not return calls from the movie’s producers. And today he is the voice at the beginning of the TV show “Jack and Bobby,” announcing, “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States.”

Around town, he is known as an enthusiastic bowler and for the parties he has thrown at the American Legion Hall in Arlington. He owns a beach house in Ocean City and two houses in Arlington. He’s spent a lifetime collecting 19th century electronic equipment, painting and, more recently, designing websites. He has also written part of a novel.

Although Pitts has earned fame and fortune, he has endured tragedy, too. In 1990, his wife, Mary Dunleavy, died of a brain aneurysm. He raised their daughter, Amber, then 14. Eleven years after his wife’s death, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. His older sister, Patty, was born severely retarded.

When Pitts was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which was treated with surgery and radiation therapy, he designed a website, www.checkyourjohnnies.com, to tell his cancer story and convey anxieties and fears. In a cartoon, Pitts’s head spins and flies, a giraffe canoes up a river, giant fruit falls from the sky and an ogre-like king zaps Pitts with bolts of electricity.

Most of his career in the House was marked by losses. Given commanding Democratic majorities, Republicans defined winning by how narrowly they lost.

Republican lawmakers relied on Pitts to stymie the Democrats. His tactics included having lawmakers strike words from the record, give five-minute speeches on the House floor, offer motions to recommit and adjourn, and raise points of order during debates to frustrate Democrats.

“He really used the rules to throw the Democrats off-kilter,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who worked with Pitts from 1989 to 1993 on Michel’s staff.

Ex-Rep. Bob Walker (R-Pa.) said, “Billy was often responsible for creating detailed points of order that could be used against [Democratic] procedures or legislative proposals. … I was the one who carried Pitts’s handiwork in the House debate.”

Pitts’s stories about legislative warfare lead to stories with a more humorous or sentimental line, such as the time when then-Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) gave Pitts a leather-bound copy of the House rulebook with blank pages. The inscription read, “To Billy, it’s too bad you don’t have more to work with, Tip.”

Pitts is a creature of the House and Washington. He was born in 1947 at Providence Hospital in Southeast Washington, at 2nd and D streets. As Michel’s top aide, he lived on 3rd Street, two blocks from where he was born. He went to Anacostia High School and Georgetown University.

In 1970, Rep. Gerald Ford (R-Mich.), the GOP minority leader, offered Pitts a $9,000-a-year job in the cloakroom.

Congress was so antiquated back then that its 13 phones had to be answered one at a time because no central line routed the calls. Pitts would scramble to answer the phones. On the House floor, there was no electronic scoreboard; roll-call votes would take 45 minutes while every member’s name was called out.

To count votes, Pitts would hold a counter for the Republicans in his right hand and Democrats in his left. Votes on amendments were not recorded, so committee chairmen could cajole, berate and threaten members as they walked up to the clerk’s desk to cast a vote. And none of the proceedings was televised.

Moreover, the House was a cozier place. Centrist Republicans such as Ford and Michel dominated the Republican Party. Reporters and staff also ate breakfast together in the House dining room, swapping gossip and trading stories. Pitts thrived in that network.

In 1974, in Watergate’s wake, Pitts said, Michel offered him a job. Pitts segued into two more stories.

Unsure what to do, Pitts asked his dad. They decided on a description and title, floor assistant to the whip, which had never existed.

In his new office off the House floor, he acquired Rep. Wayne Hays’s mistress’s old phone extension, 5-5555. Hays, an Ohio Democrat and chairman of the House Administration Committee, kept a mistress on the payroll. The single-digit extension ensured that Hays would never forget her phone number, as Pitts recalled.

In 1980, Michel became minority leader even though only seven of the 56 incoming freshmen supported him, Pitts said. One of the seven was a young Californian, David Dreier, whom Pitts would return to Capitol Hill to work for in the 108th Congress.

In President Ronald Reagan’s first term, Pitts helped shepherd major parts of the Republican agenda through the House, including Reagan’s controversial 1981 budget, which contained massive spending and tax cuts and aid to the Nicaraguan contras. In the 1990s, he worked with President Bill Clinton to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement and led a Republican war room to defeat Clinton’s healthcare reform package.

In 1994, when the Republicans won the House, Pitts decided it was time to leave. He turned down the job of House parliamentarian and recommended to Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) that the job remain nonpartisan.

Pitts left the House and joined ABC/Capital Cities to run the company’s $1.7-million-a-year lobbying operation. When the Walt Disney Co. purchased Capital Cities, Pitts stayed and dispensed political advice to Michael Eisner and Mike Ovitz, Disney’s warring executives.

In 2001, Pitts joined MP3.com, an online service that allowed customers to listen to their purchased CDs online. At the time, MP3.com was fighting the recording industry over copyright violations. MP3.com and the recording industry wanted Congress to act.

To persuade lawmakers to back MP3.com, The Washington Post reported, Pitts delivered gourmet brownies to all congressional offices. He also hired Joshua Hastert, Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) son, to manage his office. Vivendi Universal purchased MP3.com, and Pitts left with a hefty severance package.

In 2002, at Dreier’s request, Pitts returned as staff director of the Rules Committee, which Dreier chairs.

Away from the daily grind of the House legislative process, Pitts seems to enjoy his role as an eminence grise, showing up at Dreier’s ice cream social last week and traveling to Hollywood for his new job.

He’s considering rejoining nonprofit boards, such as the Capitol Hill Historical Society, and turning a house he owns into a studio.

Asked to reconcile his desire to remain out of the limelight and his public presence, Pitts acknowledged the paradox.

“I feel I have more to offer to others about life,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I am struggling for the best way to express it.”