Almost every American interested in current events is familiar with political leaders who are in the headlines every day. However, during Washington Week Senate Youth delegates go beyond the headline-makers and meet several of the dedicated and powerful behind-the-scenes leaders in our Capitol.
Spending the morning with the Secretary of the Senate and the Senate Parliamentarian is always a highlight of Washington Week, and at the 2015 program, then newly elected Secretary of the Senate Julie Adams made her first Washington Week speech to an eager and attentive group in the historic Kennedy Caucus Room. The position of Secretary of the Senate was created in 1789 and Ms. Adams is the 33rd individual to serve in that capacity. The instant rapport she established with USSYP delegates reflects her initial goal of wanting to become a high school history and civics teacher.
She taught some of the rich history of the Senate right off the bat, noting that the word “Secretary” comes from the Latin term meaning “confidential officer” or “keeper of secrets.” In the early years, the Senate met behind closed doors, unlike the House of Representatives. The first Secretary, Samuel Otis, had legislative responsibilities. He kept the Senate Journal, which is a record of the Senate proceedings as required by Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution.
Ms. Adams came to Washington to gain real life experience to enhance what she had envisioned as her future role as a teacher, and thus began her remarkable journey. “Be open to all of life’s opportunities,” she advised, relaying how her career path took her to places she had not imagined. Joining the staff of her hometown House Representative, she was subsequently tapped to move to the Senate for a spot in Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky’s press office. From there, she went to the White House to serve First Lady Laura Bush, and now, upon Senator McConnell becoming Majority Leader, she was chosen to serve as a Senate officer. To succeed in the Senate, Secretary Adams noted, you need a strong work ethic, quick acumen, and the ability to treat all colleagues with respect. Ms. Adams loves that the Senate reminds her of being in school; she says, “You are learning something new every day and are surrounded by really smart, hard-working people.”
Secretary Adams with USSYP 2015 Iowa delegates Jack Hostager and Joshua Hughes
The Senate Secretary expanded that thought in a way that links current Hill staffers to the very beginnings of our Republic. “Everyone who works on Capitol Hill has their own story, but a theme I think you’ll find in most all the stories is a deep desire to make a difference and serve this country. The media likes to portray this place as one of gridlock and bitterness, but, frankly, the Senate is doing exactly what the Founding Fathers thought it should do. James Madison, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, explained that the Constitution’s framers considered the Senate to be the great anchor of the government. To the Framers themselves, Madison explained that the Senate would be a necessary fence against the fickleness and passion that tended to influence the House of Representatives. George Washington is reputed to have told Thomas Jefferson that the Framers created the Senate to cool house legislation, just as a saucer is used to cool hot tea.”
Ms. Adams helps ensure that the Senate runs smoothly on a day-to-day basis, but also conscientiously preserves Senate history. Delegates learned that after the Capitol was burned in 1814, New York cabinetmaker Thomas Constantine crafted the 48 desks needed for the rebuilt Capitol. As new states entered the union, similar desks were requisitioned. “All of the desks hold a story,” she said. “Since the 20th century, Senators have carved their names into the desk drawers, leaving indelible marks. There are a few desks that are permanently assigned to the senior Senator from a particular state. The Daniel Webster desk is used by the senior Senator from New Hampshire. The Henry Clay desk is to be used by the senior Senator from Kentucky, and the Jefferson Davis desk is assigned to the senior Senator from Mississippi. There is even a candy desk, the desk drawer that has a supply of—you guessed it!” Today, the Senate curators are part of the Secretary of the Senate’s staff. Among their many responsibilities are making sure the Senate desks are preserved and cared for, for future generations. They are an important part of Senate history and American history.
Ms. Adams exemplifies public service, and offered some sage career and life counsel to USSYP delegates to close her speech, “Some advice that was offered to me when I first arrived in D.C.,” she said, “and something that I share with the Senate pages and interns, is to remain humble, have a strong work ethic, and be nice to the people you meet on your way up; treat everyone with respect.”