Levity on Capitol Hill

When visitors attend a meeting of the U.S. Senate Toastmasters club in Washington, D.C, they are often surprised by the club’s informality and sense of humor. As a visitor recently put it: “When you go to Capitol Hill, you expect it to be a suit-and-tie affair. It was great to see the personalities of your club members come out in today’s meeting – you have some comedians and know how to have fun.”

This observation distills the club’s essence and uniqueness. About half of its membership are employees of the United States Senate (though none are senators themselves); however, the club offers a non-partisan escape from the demands of work in the nation’s capital. The Senate Toastmasters club conducts business with humor and flexibility. Members come here to improve their communication skills and enjoy camaraderie – not to score political points.

“We shy away from politics not just because it’s the tacit understanding of the club, but because we want to escape the office and political discussions for the hour and talk about hobbies, current events, our families or whatever,” explains Erica Stern, director of constituent communications for U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.

Tradition, Protocol and Laughter
Founded in 1972, the Senate club has included many outstanding speakers over the years. One reason visitors might be expecting a suit-and-tie affair is that club meetings take place in the elegant Russell Senate Office Building, across the street from the U.S. Capitol Building. The 1908 structure is the oldest of all the Senate office buildings.

“It’s a beautiful building – the marble, the architecture – with a feeling of tradition and history, where national issues have been debated and decided,” says Pete Weissman, an award-winning speechwriter who belonged to the club while he worked for a senator.

In addition to meeting in an impressive setting, the Senate club conducts business formally, carefully following Toastmasters protocol. “Professionalism and formality are things that reflect the institution in which the club resides, and that formality is represented in how the club runs meetings,” says Brandon Hirsch, director of operations in the office of Senator Dorgan.

Formality may play a role, but a key to the club’s success is that there is also plenty of fun. “A huge number of speeches focus on humor, which many people wouldn’t expect,” notes Hirsch.

A few examples from recent months: an ode to American cowboys delivered by a member after a trip to Texas; a humorous exploration of the benefits and social consequences of not owning a television; one member’s self-deprecating tale of succeeding in life despite constantly being below average; and the toast a club member practiced for his brother’s upcoming wedding that chronicled both tender and hilarious moments from their youth. 

Away from the Fray
In Washington, D.C., the very place where partisans come to join the political fray, the non-political atmosphere of the Senate Toastmasters club is refreshing. Weissman, who now operates his own communications strategy firm in Atlanta, Georgia, refers to the club as “a non-political oasis in an institution that has become very partisan.” For club members, the common goal of improving communication and leadership skills supersedes political and ideological differences.

“So much time in [political] campaigns is spent demonizing Washington, bureaucrats and Congress as a band of people with horns,” says club member Barry Piatt, DTM. “But we’re regular people who happen to work on Capitol Hill. Maybe we’re a little better informed on issues than the average Joe, but not necessarily. Despite our different and strong viewpoints, we all get along just fine. And one of the reasons is that we don’t talk politics.”

Club member Michael Keister recounts an experience that tested this policy. During a time of heightened partisan sensitivity following the contested 2000 presidential election, a visitor to the club prefaced his Table Topics response with an apology for his political leanings.

Recalls Keister: “After expressing his thoughts on the matter at hand, I think he was surprised to find that there were no recriminations, no censure, no withering, no condescending criticism, no heckling or jeering or barbed rebuttals. The room sat and listened patiently, attentively and politely to his thoughts.”

“I rather think he might have been slightly disappointed!”

Hirsch, who as club president last year led the group to President’s Distinguished status, says the club provides a respite from the neck-breaking work pace in a congressional office. “Anyone who has worked on Capitol Hill can agree that it’s a high-stress, high-demand atmosphere,” he says. “Dealing with these demands requires focus, but having a place like Toastmasters to talk about family and to exercise your sense of humor is important. It gives a much-needed mental and physical break.”

Membership is Wide-Ranging
The U.S. Senate Toastmasters is a diverse group, with many of its members coming from outside the Senate. They typically fall into one of two camps: former Senate staffers who now work off Capitol Hill, and people who have no professional connection to the U.S. Senate. For both of these groups, the club’s interesting membership and tradition of speaking excellence are draws.

“I’ve been a bit surprised by how many members come to the Senate club who don’t even work on [Capitol] Hill,” admits club member Kellie Donnelley, who serves as deputy chief counsel for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Philip D. Moeller is an example of a club member who once worked on Capitol Hill, and now does not, but still returns to the Hill to attend the club. His current job is as a commissioner on the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Moeller maintains his club membership because it is “a very good club with interesting people.”

“Interesting people move [to Washington, D.C.] from all over the nation, because it’s the Major Leagues of public policy,” says Moeller, a former District 32 governor.

The Senate club’s longest continuously serving member, Bonnie Maidak, DTM, is a bioinformatics data analyst at the National Institutes of Health, who commutes almost an hour each way to participate in club meetings. She has never worked on Capitol Hill, but joined the club when she moved to the area nine years ago because she figured it would have strong speakers. She was right.

Maidak says the number of advanced speakers in the club is due in part to “the self-selective nature of people who work on the Hill. Most have gone through debate competition or something similar, so their participation in Toastmasters isn’t their first experience with public speaking.” She is quick to point out, however, that she has seen such members develop their presentation skills by participating in Toastmasters. And they build other key communication skills, like listening, evaluating and running a meeting. They also gain leadership experience.

For senate staff members, such benefits can directly impact their workplace success, especially those who are new to politics on a national level. For example, congressional staff members develop the communication skills they need to field constituent telephone calls and take visitors on tours of the U.S. Capitol Building; legislative staff gain confidence to brief their senator and others on issues and legislation in their areas of expertise; and communications staff learn to craft effective speeches for their senator, give useful and diplomatic feedback on speeches and interviews, and respond to impromptu questions from journalists.

It’s not surprising that the Senate club is home to several seasoned members who have spent years mastering the art of communication – both in their profession and through Toastmasters. That’s one of the things that makes club meetings so exciting, says Evan Liddiard, a senior tax policy advisor to U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah.

“You can be evaluating a speech given by a person who writes speeches for one of America’s top leaders, and you can share Table Topics with people who engage in political debates for a living,” says Liddiard.

Dealing with Challenges
The Senate club’s location, traditions and members make it unique. But these assets pose two unique challenges: 

Club members who work on Capitol Hill are all too often overwhelmed at the office and have a hard time attending club meetings regularly. When the Senate is in session, they might be stuck at their desks monitoring legislative action or pulled into an impromptu meeting on a breaking issue. And during the few congressional work periods each year when the Senate recesses, they likely are traveling in their senator’s home state for on-site meetings and events. These dynamics make it tricky to plan agendas for club meetings; the Toastmaster of the Day has to approach the role with a hearty dose of poise, flexibility and humor. 

The club’s membership is transitory due to the nature of work in a congressional office. A high burnout rate causes most staffers to leave Capitol Hill after a few years. Some staff positions, such as interns, are time-limited. Senate staff members also move across the nation – and return “home” after their stint in a Senate office. And there’s the lack of job security for congressional staff. On any given day, a club member could be out of a job because a senator loses re-election, retires or resigns. 

Stop By for a Visit
Mirroring the accessibility of the Senate itself, visitors are welcome at club meetings. Members of the public can attend without prior arrangements by simply passing through a security checkpoint when entering the building. And the U.S. Senate Toastmasters truly is a club worth visiting. Though meetings aren’t necessarily a suit-and-tie affair, guests are awestruck by the club’s impressive location in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol Building; pleased by the light, convivial and non-political tone of meetings and grateful for the fascinating and hospitable friends they make.

On your next trip to Washington, D.C., visit the Senate club – and find some levity in the nation’s capital.

The U.S. Senate Toastmasters club meets on the first and third Friday of each month from noon to 1 p.m. in the Russell Senate Office Building, at Constitution Avenue and 1st Street, NE, Washington, D.C. For more information, visit www.ussenatetoastmasters.org.

Christine Clapp, DTM, is a member of the U.S. Senate Toastmasters club and the president of Spoken with Authority. Her firm specializes in giving young professionals confidence as speakers. She can be reached at www.spokenwithauthority.com