By Ray Smock
In this excerpt from the journal I kept during the years I was Historian of the House, I describe what it was like to be an eyewitness to the counting of the of the ballots of the Electoral College, the final step, other than the inauguration which followed two weeks later, in the process of transferring power from one administration to the next. In the election of 1992, Bill Clinton and Al Gore won 370 Electoral votes to 168 for George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle. That year third party candidate, billionaire Ross Perot, won almost 20 million votes, but did not carry a single state. I have added some additional identifying information in brackets.
This afternoon at 1:00 P.M. the House convened in joint session to count the ballots of the Electoral College. There were just a handful of House members and Senators on the floor to witness the opening of the ballots from the fifty states and the official tally. It was a rather sleepy affair compared to the emotion and excitement of opening day of Congress this morning. The Speaker [Tom Foley, D-WA] sat in his chair throughout the ceremony with nothing in particular to do or say while Vice President Dan Quayle, in his constitutional role as President of the Senate presided. Joe Stewart, the Secretary of the Senate, and two assistants sliced open the envelopes from each state and passed them to Dan Quayle who distributed them to the Senators and Representatives serving as tellers. Each teller in turn would rise and say the name of the state and the fact that the ballot seemed to be authentic and in order and then read the results.
The Clerk of the House and his assistants helped the tellers keep the tally on an official tally sheet. When the ballots of all fifty states were read, Dan Quayle had the task of announcing that Bill Clinton and Al Gore had been duly elected president and vice president of the United States and would be sworn in on January 20th. The whole affair took about 40 minutes. There was an occasional titter of applause when the results of a few states were announced. Occasionally the galleries erupted in applause as the name of a certain state was announced. While applause from the gallery is not generally tolerated, neither the Speaker nor the Vice President bothered to admonish anyone on this point.
I stood on the right side of the podium by the portrait of George Washington. Bernie Raimo, the Chief Counsel of the Ethics Committee and I chatted quietly about history and the Electoral College during the ceremony. Occasionally another staffer would drift in and we would chat and shake hands and make little jokes. The Doorkeeper [James T. Molloy] walked by at one point and I slapped him on the shoulder and said, "Not one single electoral vote for Jim Molloy, better luck next time." The Architect of the Capitol, George White came by and said to me "While this isn't very exciting, it's a nice bit of constitutional history— don't you think?" I agreed.
I like this event because it is so low-key. It is a ceremony that fulfills a constitutional requirement. The fact that it could be so low-key and unemotional is a testament to the stability of the government and our long history of peaceful transitions of power. Many countries on this planet would like to get to the point where the counting of presidential ballots could go so smoothly, and almost be taken for granted.
Charlie Johnson, the Deputy Parliamentarian, came over and shook my hand when the count was over. He said he had to watch things there for a minute and make sure the microphone was off. It seems Senator Wendell Ford [D-KY] and Vice President Quayle started up a conversation about a football game while Quayle was passing a ballot down to Ford. It may not have sounded too good to go out on the air or even to be heard in the chamber, but I rather liked the casualness of it, which only further emphasized to me the remarkable way in which we transfer enormous political power.
I also introduced myself to Congressman McHale of Pennsylvania, whom I saw for the first time the day before when I stood behind seats occupied by him and his children for the opening of Congress. I told him I had friends in Fogelsville, in his district, who were delighted when he defeated Don Ritter. He told me to pass his thanks on to them. He asked me about my job and I told him a few things. He said it sounded like a great job and one that would interest him if he wasn't in Congress. I laughed and grabbed his arm and said I hoped he would be elected to Congress until the day I retired. I said, "You be the Congressman, I'll be the Historian." He said, "You know, I have the same problem. I was telling a state representative the other day how exciting it is to be a Congressman, and then I realized that if I made it sound too good, she would be running for my seat before long."
I stopped by the Republican cloakroom to see Jim Oliver [Republican Cloakroom staff member]. About a dozen members were sitting around having a little lunch, some seated in the big leather chairs with a little board across the arms to hold their plates. Jim had some old photographs he wanted to show me, including a rare photograph taken in the cloakroom itself about seventy years ago. We stood on the very spot the photographer did and compared how the room looked then to its present configuration. It was remarkably the same, except for some missing fireplaces that were removed in the 1940s.
After the joint session was dissolved I milled around for a while on the floor greeting people. I walked over to the Republican side where Stephen Horn of California was seated. I met Steve before he was elected, having had lunch with him about a year ago. Before that I knew of him by reputation as a scholar of Congress. Steve was at the Brookings Institution back in the mid Sixties, about the same time I came to Maryland to start graduate school. I never met him then but I did know some of the books he wrote including Unused Power: The Works of the Senate Committee on Appropriations and his earlier work The Cabinet and Congress (1960).
Now Steve is back in DC but looking at Congress from the perspective of a member of the House. I think it is great to have a man like Steve Horn in the House. He has one of the best private collections of books on Congress of anyone in the country. He has been a close student of American politics for almost forty years. He recognized me and shook my hand vigorously and introduced me to Jim Ramstad of Minnesota and said "Ray is a real scholar of the House." I said coming from him that was quite a compliment. I asked him to stop by and see me sometime. He said he had been meaning to do so as soon as he got settled. I think I'll arrange to go out to lunch with him sometime soon before the legislative schedule presses in on him. I can learn a lot from him. I want to get to know him better. He strikes me as a truly decent, talented, unassuming man. Ultimately it is men and women of Steve Horn's ilk that make this institution endure. The democratic process doesn't mean the House is always populated with the best and the brightest. Nor can it guarantee that crooks and charlatans are not elected. The key is that the institution, while containing corruption, does not succumb to it. None of the scandals of the past few years have shaken my faith in the fundamental importance of Congress to the healthy political life this country enjoys and the overall competence of most of the people who serve here.