Staff plays larger role as Jeffords’ term winds down

Print More

(Host) Early next year, Senator Jim Jeffords will retire from a long career in Vermont politics.

As he looks at the remaining seven months of his term, he says he’ll be working overtime on many Vermont issues.

But as the senator winds down from three terms in the U.S. Senate he’s limiting his accessibility to some degree and his staff is playing a larger role.

Chad Pergram reports from Capitol Hill.

(Pergram) Jim Jeffords announced his retirement last spring. And in a moment that was both light-hearted and serious … Jeffords conceded health “was” a factor in his decision.

(Jeffords) “I am feeling the aches and pains that come with when you reach seventy. My memory fails me on occasion. But Liz would probably argue that has been going on for at least fifty years.”

(Pergram) But Jeffords cautioned Vermonters that although he was retiring, he wasn’t done just yet.

Today Jeffords’ aides regularly flood reporter’s inboxes with press releases about the senator’s opposition to a key White House nominee, overseeing the environment or trying to designate Vermont land for wilderness protection.

But Jeffords and his aides have shifted gears in at least one respect.

(Speaker) “The yeas and nays are mandatory under the rule. The clerk will call the role.”
(Speaker) “Mr. Akaka, Mr. Alexander, Mr. Allard,”

(Pergram) It’s a typical morning on Capitol Hill. The Senate’s voting on a procedural motion.

(Speaker) “Mrs. Boxer, Mr. Brownback, Mr. Bunning ”

(Corridor Ambience)

(Pergram) The corridor outside the Senate chamber bursts with aides, journalists and senators themselves.

There’s a special game played here. Senators appear from a bank of elevators…and hustle into the chamber to vote

(Reporter) “Senator Allen? Could I ask you about the NRC and how you think it’s doing this cycle?”

(Pergram) It’s a daily Senate exercise, where reporters just waltz up to senators and pepper them with questions on most anything, such as this query to Illinois Democrat Barack Obama.

(Reporter) “Do you have a sense for where democrats generally stand on this? Do you think that there will be widespread opposition within the caucus?”

(Obama) “I think it’s too early to tell. I think people generally try to give presidential appointments the benefit of the doubt.”

(Pergram) Vermont’s Jim Jeffords rarely enjoyed the sought after status of celebrity senators like Obama. The exception of course was in 2001, when Jeffords abandoned the Republican Party to become an independent. That tipped Senate control to the Democrats.

But the affable Jeffords was always willing to stop and chat with reporters, especially about issues critical to Vermont like the environment.

Now when the Senate calls a vote, Jeffords typically avoids the gauntlet of reporters. These days, staff members usually step forward when reporters come calling.

(Reporter) “Senator Jeffords?”
(Aide) “We’re going to vote on it.”
(Reporter) “I know. That’s why I want to ask you a question on the immigration bill. Can we ask you a question on how you feel being in a Vermont…”
(Aide) “Can he go vote?”
(Reporter) “Sure, it’s up to the Senator.”
(Jeffords) “I’ve got to go vote.”
(Reporter) “Okay. If you come back and get us, I’ll wait right here for you.”
(Jeffords) “Okay.”
(Reporter) “Thanks, Senator.”

(Pergram) But the senator didn’t return. It’s become harder for reporters, including those from Capitol News Connection to have a one-on-one with Jeffords.

(Marselis Parsons) There is no doubt among the senior managers at Channel 3 that Senator Jeffords is no longer as accessible as he used to be.

Marselis Parsons is the News Director for WCAX-TV. He says a Washington reporter for the station also observed that that the senator’s aides keep a close watch on reporters questions.

(Parsons) “We have asked for an interview on earmarks. We have asked for an interview even on issues where he was the sponsor of the legislation. And we’re told he’s not available. He’s not able to respond to questions today.”

(Pergram) Tom Mann is a Congressional scholar at the Washington D.C. think tank, The Brookings Institution. Mann says a stronger presence by Capitol Hill aides often means something.

(Mann) “It really is an effort to shape the public image of a member of Congress.”

(Pergram) Paul Kane is a senior staff writer for the Capitol Hill publication, “Roll Call.”

(Paul Kane) “There is sort of an aversion to approaching him.”

(Pergram) Kane says many congressional reporters just no longer try to interview Jeffords. When Congress is in session, the legislative day churns with such velocity…it’s hard for even the youngest, energetic lawmakers to keep straight the details about votes, amendments…hearings…and constituent meetings.

Case in point…Democratic Alabama Representative, Artur Davis. Davis is a Harvard-educated attorney in his late 30s. Here, Davis’s chief of staff, Dana Gresham, briefs the congressman about how to vote on transportation spending amendments.

(Gresham) “The second one is related to toll roads and ability for states to establish toll roads on existing Interstates. So that’s my recommendation on that one.”
(Davis) “So this would make it easier to establish toll roads?”
(Gresham) “No, make it more difficult.”
(Davis) “Make it more difficult. Okay”
(Gresham) “Yeah, make it more difficult to establish toll roads.”

(Pergram) Every member of Congress relies on staff to varying degrees. Congressional scholar Tom Mann says it can be problematic if staff shifts the balance of control.

(Tom Mann) “But the key thing is whether the members are controlling the staff or vice-versa.”

(Pergram) Diane Derby is Jeffords’ press secretary. Derby says the senator’s aides might be afraid for the senator to get involved with reporters because those staffers don’t handle media…which is her job.

Jeffords has limited other interviews. Derby says Jeffords, who has been a regular over the years on VPR’s call in program, Switchboard, will not appear on the show now. According to Derby, the senator might do some interviews later in the fall.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Chad Pergram on Capitol Hill.

Comments are closed.