As new congressman, Bartlett feels his way around corridors of power


The porch door swings opens at 6:25 a.m. and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett jogs down the steps into the rainy, fog-shrouded dawn. He slides into the passenger side of his aide's Ford Taurus and they begin the 54-mile commute to the nation's capital.

Already 10 minutes behind schedule, Tim Woodford, Mr. Bartlett's administrative assistant, drives away from the 144-acre Bartlett estate onto the back roads of Frederick County.

Mr. Bartlett thumbs through the stack of morning papers in the back seat. He reads the editorial pages first.

The two men discuss the day's hot topics -- military base closings, a Howard County highway project, Iran, the Blizzard of '93, the abortion pill and a toy safety labeling bill.

Eventually, Mr. Woodford slips into the congressman's parking space beneath the Cannon House Office Building.

They hop out of the car and duck down a dark hallway in the labyrinth of underground tunnels that traverse Capitol Hill.

The tunnel opens to the basement of the Longworth building. They pop into the cafeteria, where Mr. Bartlett picks up breakfast -- french toast with maple syrup and a glass of ice water. At a corner table, he is greeted by two police officers. The meeting is the first of many for Mr. Bartlett today. Everybody wants a piece of him, and he does his best to accommodate them.

Sgt. John A. Gott, president of the U.S. Capitol Police Officers Association, and the other officer press the congressman to support Capitol employees. In return, they'd support a bill Mr. Bartlett has co-sponsored that would prevent legislators from exempting themselves from the laws they pass.

Mr. Bartlett's eyes brighten at the thought of 2,500 Capitol employees behind his bill.

Scooping up the last of the syrup with a fork, Mr. Bartlett makes his play to solidify the support. He leans in toward Sergeant Gott, suggests a petition among Capitol employees in favor of his bill and promises another meeting soon.

Mr. Woodford signals him with a glance, and the two men slip back into the tunnel to a subway. At the Capitol, Mr. Woodford stops to ask directions twice.

They make a "stop by" at a breakfast meeting put on by the Maryland Independent Insurance Agents for members of the state's congressional delegation.

When Mr. Bartlett shows up at 8:45 a.m., he is the only politician in sight.

"Stop bys" -- quick appearances -- are an integral part of the congressman's day. They are the only way he can come close to satisfying the enormous number of requests for his time.

"I never believed I would have to be in three places at one time," Mr. Bartlett says. "But that's the way it works here. I'd say three-quarters of the time we get no dinner up here. Mostly it's finger food and snacks we get at these meetings."

This morning, the sausages and scrambled eggs grow cold as Mr. Bartlett chats with his hosts. He gives them 12 minutes, and, since he's the only member to show up this morning, they lavish him with attention.

The next stop is a GOP strategy session in the House chamber. Afterward, Mr. Bartlett walks through the winding tunnel to his office. At the end of the tunnel he pauses to choose from among three identical openings.

Shaking his head, he murmurs, "I still get lost around here."

Making his choice, he strides past a bank of elevators to a large xTC marble stairwell. Taking hold of the brass handrail, the 66-year-old runs up the steps two at a time to his third-floor office. It's 10:23 a.m.

The high-backed, black leather chair behind his desk will go mostly unused today as Mr. Bartlett runs from meeting to meeting. The pale blue room is lighted only by a large window behind his desk.

"It's one of only five offices held by freshmen that have a window," he brags. It's a prize won in the freshman office lottery.

On a credenza below the window is a photo of the congressman, his wife, Ellen, and their 10 children. He has difficulty remembering the order of their births.

Ten minutes go by before a beeper buzzes beneath his charcoal pinstripe suit jacket, summoning him to a vote on the House floor.

"What this vote does is let them know you're here," he scoffs.

After the vote, Mr. Bartlett stops at a news conference to back fellow Republican Newt Gingrich as the GOP whip takes shots at the president's tax plan. On the way, Mr. Bartlett stops outside the Republican cloakroom to point out a hidden, plain brass plaque on which he had penciled his initials next to those of other lawmakers and, according to Hill folklore, poet Walt Whitman.

Mr. Bartlett arrives back at his office five minutes before his next appointment. He hurries to ready the room, pushing chairs into a circle. He wants to appear accessible, and meeting guests from behind a large desk is not the way to do it.

Members of the Council for American Private Education are ushered into the office. Mr. Bartlett tells them he would like to see teachers' pay doubled, but declines to support a program that would increase federal funding for private education.

"I believe the federal government should stay out of schools," he says.

Mr. Woodford pops his head through the door 15 minutes later to remind the congressman of a luncheon for the Maryland delegation on the Senate side of Capitol Hill. Other lawmakers miss the lunch, put on by the Maryland Funeral Directors Association.

Mr. Bartlett is anticipating a floor vote that would pull him out of the lunch, but the call never comes. After he finishes his chicken cordon bleu and rice, he pulls a crumpled schedule from his pocket and announces an approaching committee meeting. He thanks his hosts and beats a hasty retreat.

As he travels the underground below the Capitol, Mr. Bartlett talks of free meals and commitments. "All too often few members show up. [The funeral directors] will remember this," he says. "I don't like people to buy me lunch. I'd be happier with a couple of hamburgers and a strawberry shake from McDonald's."

He arrives at a closed session of the House Armed Services Committee meeting, where he meets Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. He emerges an hour later and heads back to his office.

"I'd like to try wearing a pedometer sometime," he says. "I'd really like to know how many miles I've traveled here."

In the Cannon Building, his beeper squeals and calls him back to the House floor. "Good, we'll have just enough time to check for messages at the office," he says.

Mr. Bartlett turns the corner to find the hall outside his office packed with representatives of small Maryland security firms, who have banded together to ask him for protection from competition with Bell Atlantic Co. Realizing his tiny reception area is too small for the group, he invites them to walk with him to the House floor.

The clatter of shoes smacking the marble steps fills the stairwell as the mob struggles to keep up with the congressman's furious pace.

At the House chamber, Mr. Bartlett turns to his followers. "Give me three minutes to vote," he says. "Then I'll be right out to talk to you."

He keeps his word, holding court outside the chamber, then goes back to his office.

At 4 p.m. it's back to the Capitol for another strategy session, this one a weekly meeting of GOP freshmen, then to another GOP gab session at the Cannon Building to enlist support for his bill to link congressional salaries to deficit reduction.

On the way, Mr. Woodford relays a message from the congressman's wife that their basement is flooding and the sump pump is broken. Mr. Bartlett explains to Mr. Woodford how to fix the pump, then sends him to relay the instructions home.

Nearly 11 hours pass before Mr. Bartlett sets foot outside. He stands at the threshold of the Cannon Building, savoring his first deep breath of fresh air since morning.

"If it's a pretty day I intentionally leave the buildings rather than walk the tunnels," he says. "This wasn't a pretty day."

The break lasts three minutes before he jumps into press secretary Jim Lafferty's beat-up Ford for the 80-minute trip to Ellicott City for a town meeting. During the ride, Mr. Bartlett plans the meeting. Mr. Lafferty says he has spoken to producers of the Larry King show about a possible appearance by the congressman.

"I'll do it," Mr. Bartlett blurts. "Live on CNN, I'll do it."

Only 10 people are on hand to greet the congressman at the Florence Bain Senior Center. It's his first meeting in Howard County, the easternmost corner of his district. Town meetings give him the chance to recap the high points of his first three months on the job. Ten more people trickle in before he begins to field audience questions.

During the two-hour session, Mr. Bartlett talks about the federal deficit, taxes on Social Security, overseas military bases, an economic plan advocated by Andy Rooney of "60 Minutes," defense cuts, the proposed federal pay freeze, Ross Perot, testing for Medicare, gays in the military and the turmoil in Bosnia.

The meeting ends just before 9 p.m., and Mr. Bartlett and Mr. Lafferty head toward the congressman's home, where he lives with his wife, mother, mother-in-law and three sons.

Despite a 15 1/2 -hour day, when Mr. Bartlett gets home at 9:54 p.m. he looks as fresh as he did at the start.

He steps from the car and enters the house. In less than eight hours, he'll do it all again.

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