Gavel time for healthcare

On this day in 1906, according to the House historian’s office, Speaker Joseph Cannon, overseeing floor proceedings, banged the gavel so hard it shattered in two, rocketing out a speeding chunk of wood that barely missed the poor legislative clerks who were innocently doing their work one tier below. That’s not exactly the way the historian describes it, but close enough for a columnist on deadline.

There’s no word from the historian whether, long before OSHA workplace regulations took effect, any litigation ensued or if the clerks showed up the next day wearing congressionally sanctioned protective headgear of any kind.

Not sure if this is a congressional record or not, but the historian also reports that in 1911, Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri apparently broke two separate gavels on the opening day of the 62nd Congress. Nothing like a good first impression.

And 20 years later, in 1931, Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas, obviously looking to get into the record books himself, gets credit for breaking three separate gavels during his first week in the Speaker’s chair.

History does not report if this 3X episode helped or hurt the vetting process when Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to tap Garner to be his vice president.

Presumably, Garner, apparently not overly impressed by his own gavel-busting prowess, reportedly ordered not only an “unbreakable” black walnut gavel, but one that would undergo a special curing process so it could withstand even the most ill-tempered of smacks.

Something to be mindful of if you have any non-headgear-wearing, out-of-town friends or family visiting Capitol Hill this week.

Unbreakable or not, gavels will be coming down in full force all across Congress this week as the House officially joins the Senate in committee action on the nation’s collective summer science project — otherwise known as healthcare reform.

While the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee continues it markup sessions, the Health subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the full Energy panel and the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee will all spend time this week trying to work their respective answers to the cryptologic healthcare puzzle.

 When Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) gavels the HELP Committee into session Tuesday, he will do so in the Senate’s most ornate and legendary of rooms — the Russell building’s Senate Caucus Room.

Located on the third floor of Russell, the Caucus room is a proven, time-honored venue for the really big, important hearings of the day. And this year’s stab at healthcare joins a long and interesting list of hearings and events conducted there over the years: the Senate Watergate hearings; the Teapot Dome scandal; then-obscure Missouri Sen. Harry Truman’s hearings on war profiteering; the 1954 Army/McCarthy hearings; the Clarence Thomas hearings; and — believe it or not — way back in 1912, hearings held to investigate the sinking of the Titanic.

Whether the Senate’s ultimate healthcare bill, if any actually emerges, turns out to be the iceberg or the ship remains to be seen.

According to the Senate historian, the Titanic hearings were so wildly popular that the Caucus room “filled to overflowing with senators, representatives, diplomats, reporters and members of the curious public.”

When police showed up to help control the crowd, spectators rushed to nearby rooms and climbed out onto Senate balconies to get a glimpse of the proceedings through the Caucus room’s huge windows.

According to the historian, the circus-like atmosphere of the pre-TV hearings actually forced the proceedings to a smaller room that could be more easily controlled.

“This inquiry is official and solemn,” proclaimed Chairman William Alden Smith of Michigan, “and there will be no hippodroming or commercializing of it.” I have always said that we don’t use the word hippodroming enough in public discourse.

 In the late 1950s, the Senate’s investigation of labor racketeering put the spotlight on Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa in the Caucus room. Also getting a little attention from the sessions were committee member Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and his brother Robert Kennedy, the committee’s counsel.

They would both later use the same Caucus room to announce their campaigns for the White House. An interesting aside, given the fact that senior Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) should be conducting this summer’s healthcare proceedings, but cannot because of his own bad health.

That said, it’s hard to say if this summer stacks up to, say, the interest level of the summer of 1973, when the threads of the Watergate cover-up started to unravel before a nationwide audience, or whether the economically strapped American people are too D.C.-weary to pay attention right now.

Time will tell, I suppose. In the meantime, keep an ear out and all eyes protected in case we get some flying gavels.

You can reach Jim Mills at