By Kris Kitto - 02/19/08 05:31 PM EST
Congressman, Senator, Madam Speaker, Mr. Chairman — take a breath — Representative, ranking member, Mr. Leader, Madam President.
Anyone who has ever stopped to think about how to address a member of Congress can see that congressional titles are plentiful. With a title to match nearly every duty in the legislative body, many members can be rightly addressed by several different honor-filled titles.
Options are nice, we Americans think, but this array leaves well-meaning constituents, eager-to-please staffers, tongue-tied reporters and fast-talking lobbyists in a bind. How do we choose the right title when addressing a member of Congress? And what happens if we flub it?
Or, better put, when we flub it — because title flubs happen often.
Just ask Sen. Rubén Hinojosa. Oops, make that Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas) — but a presenter at a locally held policy conference last year was none the wiser. She referred to Hinojosa several times as a senator when calling him up to the speaker’s dais and introducing him to the crowd.
There was also that time in 2006 when pop star and “American Idol” alumna Kelly Clarkson visited the Hill for an event with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). She called him “Sen. Barack” — yes, she got his title right, but she canceled out that accomplishment by substituting his first name for his last.
Just last week, baseball player Roger Clemens used an unconventional title while testifying before a House panel on his alleged use of steroids. He repeatedly referred to Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) as “Mr. Congressman,” an honorific reminiscent of the titles children use when playing “grown-up.”
Members of Congress themselves have been known to mangle a colleague’s title. During one of last year’s heated congressional hearings on the No Child Left Behind law, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) was in the middle of grilling Education Secretary Margaret Spellings when he referred to her as “Madam Chairman.” Did you mean “Madam Secretary,” Mr. Chairman?
A lawmaker’s solution to this confusion is the politically savvy one. Many of them told The Hill that they ask everyone — constituents, staffers, co-workers — to call them by their first name.
“‘Kit’ works well,” said Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.). “I’ve been called a lot worse things.”
Nevertheless, he and his colleague Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) both said they hear people call them by different titles, mostly because they both have served in multiple government positions. Before coming to the Senate, Bond was governor of Missouri, and Martinez was former President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
“I get people who are confused about whether to call me ‘Senator’ or ‘Secretary,’ ” Martinez said. “I tell them to call me Mel.”
Judith Martin, the columnist known as Miss Manners, suggested that politicians’ insistence that they be called by their first names further confuses the issue.
“You really can’t blame the public for getting these things wrong when politicians who are running for office are always encouraging them to call them by their first name or their nickname,” Martin said in a phone interview.
Many staffers, however, know better than to call their boss by his or her first name. Besides, one House GOP aide said, using a congressman’s formal title boosts the perception of strength and importance that Americans look for in their leaders.
“I call him [by his first name] in private or we sometimes just yell [his last name],” the aide wrote in an e-mail, adding that in public he addresses his boss as “Sir” or “Congressman.”
“The public aura is important because when people come here to visit or he goes out there to visit an event or something, people have to feel like they are witnessing history or seeing a celebrity ... it is a lot harder to run against someone who you see as powerful and a presence than someone you know as your buddy or neighbor.”
Still, titles, in many ways, go against the American psyche, Martin said.
“Titles in general Americans have problems with because it’s against our nature to have the kind of complicated hierarchies that existed elsewhere,” she said.
By elsewhere, Martin principally means Great Britain, where titles are a part of history and whose government America’s Founding Fathers used as their example.
Nancy Mitchell, owner of the Washington, D.C.-based business The Etiquette Advocate and a former director of protocol and special events at the Library of Congress, said the Founding Fathers’ struggles over titles fit into the larger discussions on the country’s principles.
“The Founding Fathers, products of a nation (Great Britain) that was steeped in diplomatic customs and courtesies, were faced with the difficult decision of how much pomp and circumstance to include in a new government that was established on the premise that ‘all men are created equal,’ ” Mitchell wrote in an e-mail. “The titles and honorifics that challenge us today can be traced back to this 18th-century diplomatic debate.”
But a history lesson isn’t enough to keep us from calling out the wrong title when approaching a member of Congress.
Our saving grace? Intention counts, experts said. Someone attempting to use the right title with a Congress member is showing respect for him or her, and that’s what titles are meant for.
Using an incorrect title “is not a great crime, it’s a small one,” Martin said, adding that she doubts Congress members who are wrongly addressed would “do anything but smile.”
“If [a Congress member] were to insist upon a title, I think a lot of people would say, ‘Oh, he’s gotten a little too big for his britches,’ ” she said.
Whatever it is Congress members prefer to be called, there’s at least one who said he’d answer to almost anything.
“I’m not being humble here,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), “[but to be a congressman] is such a profound honor that if they called me ‘Mud,’ I’d still be overwhelmed by the privilege to serve here.”