By Kris Kitto - 09/21/09 09:58 PM EDT
She started playing the violin at age 7, and now, at 59, she makes music with the Prince George’s Philharmonic Orchestra.
Thirty-four years later, she is the expert in drafting legislation for the House. This summer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appointed Strokoff the new legislative counsel, making her the first woman to hold the position and only the eighth in the House’s history.
The distinction shines a light on Strokoff and her colleagues, who are more accustomed to working behind the scenes. Many Capitol Hill insiders know that the Office of the Legislative Counsel is the place where legislation finds its physical form. But fewer know the people who do the grunt work — or even realize that there are people, rather than computers, who draft Congress’s bills.
For starters, Strokoff, a Philadelphia native, is known as “Sandy” to her colleagues and friends. She and her staff of 43 attorneys and approximately 16 support employees work in a quiet, first floor corridor of the Cannon House Office Building. She appointed Ed Grossman her deputy. The two of them started in the office on the same day — the day after Labor Day in 1975.
Her new office is about the size of a lawmaker’s, though its walls are white and free of flags, maps and grip-and-grin photos. In the middle is a nondescript brown table, which she explains belonged to the House’s first legislative counsel, who was appointed in 1918. On it stands a vase of flowers.
As she sits at that table, Strokoff explains her office’s work. She describes the legislative counsel’s commitment to neutrality and its mandate to help all committees and members create clear and coherent legislation.
That might sound simple, but Strokoff says “there’s so much more” to legislative drafting than merely announcing, “We need a new bill.”
“People think, ‘You’ve got a program, you guys have a software program. You push a button, it comes out and looks pretty like a bill,’ ” she says. “But there’s so much more that goes on before you reach that stage.”
She calls her staff “issue spotters.” When a committee or a member of Congress comes to them with an idea for a piece of legislation, they first talk about whether the legislation is even necessary. There could already be a law that achieves the same goal, or a statute that, with some tweaking, could serve the same purpose.
But they write plenty of legislation, too. Strokoff says one of her employees, through an informal audit, concluded that the legislative counsel’s office wrote more than 40,000 bills in the 110th Congress and has already drafted more than 20,000 in this Congress.
“You have to think about every word you use and every punctuation mark,” she says. “It’s very intellectually challenging. And, for me, that’s the exciting part of the job and what has kept me here all these years.”
Yet Strokoff and Grossman don’t get entirely lost in the details. They display a sense of humor about their work and an awareness that they have been witness to and participants in many of this country’s historic events.
When Strokoff introduces Grossman as her deputy, he says that, since receiving the new title, he has been tempted to walk around the office in a fedora-like hat befitting his position. And in a 1996 article Strokoff penned for The Philadelphia Lawyer magazine, she wrote about having to draft a bill whose primary acronym was URIA, pronounced “yu-REE-uh.”
“Needless to say, no one liked the sound of that,” she wrote.
Strokoff describes some of the more memorable experiences in the office in a more serious tone. She helped draft the legislation authorizing the disestablishment of the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Zone in 1979, calling that “a wild year.”
It was “some of the most moving debate I’ve ever heard on the House [floor],” she says, remembering former Rep. Norman Mineta (D-Calif.) retell his experience being interned. “Just listening to him describe what it was like — it was just so emotional.”
On top of what at times can be a crushing workload, Strokoff has been known to pile more work on herself. She is a mentor to the new attorneys in the office, and over the years, she found that people both inside the office and out would often ask if there’s a book on legislative drafting.
There was, but it went out of print, so in 2007, she started bugging the publisher to release a new edition. She agreed to write and edit it, working from the first edition a former colleague wrote.
“For a year, I felt like I was working full-time and going to school full-time because I was working on [the book] in all my spare time,” she says of The Legislative Drafter’s Desk Reference.
And then she did start going to school in her spare time — as a George Washington University Law School professor, co-teaching a class on legislative drafting with Polly Craighill, senior counsel in the Senate’s Office of the Legislative Counsel.
“Sandy’s brilliant, first of all, and she’s an incredible drafter, but she’s also a very good teacher,” Craighill says, adding that Strokoff being the first female legislative counsel is “probably just secondary or tertiary to her qualifications.”
Strokoff has challenges ahead. She and Grossman talk about not only a growing volume of work their office has seen over the years, but also the increasing size and complexity of the bills they’re being asked to draft.
But, just as she still has her violin, Strokoff will rely on her 34 years of legislative drafting experience to guide her in her new position. She says she loves chamber music, and every August she travels to Bennington, Vt., to participate in what she calls an “adult music camp.” She returns from that trip to the office she’s also come to love for her entire professional career.
“People are here because they love the work,” she says, “and are really dedicated to doing it.”