March 8, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
First openly gay U.S. House reading clerk relishes role

Joe Novotny, the first openly gay U.S. House reading clerk, reads bills, resolutions and messages from the president to Congress. (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

It’s part of making history.

That’s part of the reason Joe Novotny enjoys his role as reading clerk for the U.S. House.

Just last week, he had the distinction of reading to House members Rep. Charlie Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) message announcing his intent to resign as chair of the Ways & Means Committee. That message, issued by Novotny, went through the media to reach people across the country.

Other milestones in which Novotny may soon take part could include the passage of health care reform — or the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“You just feel the energy when you walk out on the House floor,” Novotny told DC Agenda. “If there’s a vote, or even just a heated debate, if something’s happening — the feeling that you get from that room is probably unlike anything everywhere else that you could really describe.”

And yet, Novotny is making history simply by holding the job. The 34-year-old Chicago native is the first openly gay person to work as a reading clerk in the U.S. House. Charged with reading messages to lawmakers and having his performance broadcast across the world on C-SPAN, Novotny is one of the most visible figures in House proceedings.

“I’m tremendously proud,” he said. “I feel like it’s an opportunity to represent the community. When you think about the diversity in this House now — and the fact that we have the first woman speaker and we have the first African-American clerk of the House — this is sort of a Congress of firsts, so to be a part of that is a tremendous honor.”

As reading clerk for the House, Novotny is charged with reading messages to House members and ensuring legislative measures before the chamber are clearly articulated to lawmakers and the public. He also tracks changes to bills made on the House floor.

“As House reading clerk, you’re responsible for reading all the bills and resolutions that come up throughout the day — and so there are all these other letters that come and messages from the president, and so you are responsible essentially for reading and representing these people,” Novotny said.

Other duties for Novotny include delivering House-approved measures to the Senate and working with official reporters to transcribe remarks in case a House member wants them stricken down.

Novotny is one of two reading clerks for the House. The other reading clerk, Susan Cole, was appointed by Republican leadership. Novotny and Cole are under the jurisdiction of Lorraine Miller, the House clerk and chamber’s official record keeper.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed Novotny to his role in December, and he’s served in the position for six weeks. No newcomer to Capitol Hill, Novotny was a congressional page when he was 16. For 15 years, he was a staffer for the House Education & Labor Committee, most recently as chief clerk for the panel.

Now as someone who sits on the podium with the speaker or speaker pro-tempe as lawmakers debate bills, Novotny is one of the more visible figures in the House.

In a statement, Pelosi highlighted the importance of Novotny’s job and his qualifications for taking on the position.

“As reading clerk, Joe will be the voice of the House of Representatives and will play an integral role in the daily operations of Congress,” she said. “Joe brings his experience and professionalism from the Education & Labor Committee, and we are grateful for his service.”

Novotny said his sexual orientation hasn’t made his job any more difficult or impaired relationships with his colleagues.

“I’ve been very, very lucky that throughout my career on the Hill, I’ve always been met with people who have looked at me pretty much just at face value, and it’s never been an issue,” he said. “I’ve always been open about who I am and it’s always been met with understanding and respect.”

But one challenge Novotny has encountered in his new role is needing to recognize all 435 House members immediately.

“Basically you have to learn every single person by name and by sight,” he said. “If somebody’s coming up and you’re at the podium, you’re responsible for announcing who that member is as they’re voting at the end of the vote or announce their changes.”

Since his years at George Washington University, where he studied political communications, Novotny said he’s had an affinity for politics.

“I’ve always been fascinated by politics,” he said. “I think that people lose sight of the fact that politics is not just about policy, it’s about relationships.”

Novotny said people “use politics every day in our lives” in relationships with colleagues, loved ones and friends.

“So, I guess I’m fascinated by relationships that people have and how everybody uses politics in form or another,” he said.

It’s that fascination with politics that lead him to take a position as staffer on the House Education & Labor Committee under the supervision of Chairman George Miller. Novotny said leaving his old job to become reading clerk was “bittersweet” because Miller is “such a great boss.”

“The thing about him is that he’s a little informal, and he likes to just be called by his first name,” Novotny said. “It’s never Mr. Chairman or congressman. He likes to be called George. So when you have that kind of relationship from the get go, you can really — you establish this great relationship.”

In 2007, Novotny was working for the committee when it sent the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to the House floor. Lawmakers in that chamber later approved the bill.

“That was really a very, very proud moment for me to be a part of that, and actually, seeing that pass the House floor in the last Congress was great,” he said.

In a statement, Miller congratulated Novotny for landing his new position, recalling the former committee staffer’s years of service on the panel.

“Joe was an incredibly valuable asset to my staff for nearly 15 years,” Novotny said. “His unparalleled integrity and dedication helped our committee advance major policies that are making a difference in the lives of working families. I know Joe will bring the same level of enthusiasm, expertise and steadfast commitment of service to his new role as House reading clerk.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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