Inside the House Chamber, along its southern wall, an American flag hangs above a modest three-tiered structure that is arguably one of the most recognizable pieces of furniture in the federal government—the House rostrum, the institution’s central nervous system. There, Members submit legislation, clerks keep the official House record, Presidents address Congress, and parliamentarians hand down rulings. On any given day when the House is in session, roughly a dozen employees from the Office of the Clerk quietly keep the great gears of government turning.
The rostrum’s middle row is reserved for three clerks, in particular: the House Journal clerk, the tally clerk who records votes, and the reading clerk who, as the job suggests, reads legislation and once called the roll of Members before the House switched to an electronic voting system in 1973.
With such a prominent and vocal responsibility, reading clerks are often in the public eye. Most have remained anonymous, but in the first half of the 20th century the colorful personality and vocal endurance of Patrick James Haltigan made him a star. First brought on as a patronage hire in 1911, Haltigan was retained by Democrats and Republicans over the course of his then-record-breaking 26-year career and helped liberate the reading clerk position from purely partisan control. But more than that, Haltigan’s career neatly encapsulated the rise of professionalization in the federal workforce.
Haltigan was born August 4, 1862, in Kilkenny, Ireland. His father, John Haltigan, was sentenced to seven years in prison in 1865 for being a printer for the Fenian movement that pushed for Irish independence. It appears that Patrick Haltigan immigrated to New York with his brother, James, while both were teenagers. Patrick joined the printing and trade business before moving, in 1889, to Washington, DC, where he worked for the Washington Post and the Government Printing Office. Haltigan earned an L.L.B. from Georgetown University Law School in 1897. He later became editor and publisher of the National Hibernian, the organ for the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish-American group. Sometimes going by the nickname P.J., he reportedly retained his New York voter registration and was something of a foot soldier in the Tammany Hall Democratic machine.
One day, as Haltigan was on his way to the Supreme Court library where he customarily put in a few hours of reading, he ducked into the House gallery to watch the proceedings and determined that he wanted to be a House reading clerk. At the time, staff-level jobs like the reading clerk were patronage positions which the majority party in the House doled out to reward its supporters. Republicans had controlled the chamber since the 54th Congress (1895–1897), and the GOP’s two reading clerks, Dennis Alward and E.J. Lampson, had worked on the rostrum for more than a decade. When Democrats won back the majority in the 1910 elections, however, Alward and Lampson were suddenly unemployed, and Haltigan maneuvered for an appointment.
To even be considered for a patronage positon in the House, job candidates first had to provide a reference from a prominent enough party official to get through the door. Haltigan arrived with a letter of endorsement from Tammany leader, Charles Murphy. Reading clerks in the early 20th century, however, also had to exhibit actual skills by auditioning for the job. Though it is unclear if there was an official method for selecting reading clerks, as far back as the mid-1860s candidates were required to read or recite legislation and perform mock roll calls before a committee of Members, the Clerk of the House, and occasionally House leadership. Haltigan recalled that he stood before the incoming Democratic leadership and passed a test for “clarity of enunciation, speed and volume.” Ultimately, he recalled that the Speaker himself, Champ Clark of Missouri, selected Haltigan over a “half-dozen other aspirants.” H. Martin Williams of Missouri, who had previously served as reading clerk under Democratic majorities in the early 1890s, joined Haltigan on the rostrum.
The Irishman had certainly hit the patronage lottery. He made a generous annual salary of $4,000 (same as the Speaker’s personal secretary), the equivalent of nearly six figures in 2017 dollars. It was the second highest-paid position for support staff—comparatively House Officers made $6,500 and the “chief clerk” made $4,500. It’s no surprise that the reading clerk post was described as “one of the best jobs within the gift of the House.”
Haltigan may have been a patronage hire, but his long service marked a shift toward the widespread emergence of professional workspaces where experience and knowledge mattered more than personal connections. To start, Democrats asked Alward and Lampson, despite their affiliation with the outgoing GOP majority, to weigh in on Haltigan’s audition. When Republicans took back the majority in 1916, GOP leaders kept Haltigan on as reading clerk, making him the first reading clerk to be retained by the opposing party. He held the position for the next 16 years of Republican rule.
Haltigan worked for the House during an age in which the magic of radio captivated audiences across the country. Listeners who tuned in could hear him read bills or messages, and his skill and popularity certainly contributed to his long tenure. (He gained national fame outside the House as the reading clerk at the 1924 Democratic Convention, broadcast by radio for the first time in convention history. Through 103 ballots and 16 days he doggedly recited the Alabama delegation’s votes for its favorite son, Oscar Underwood.)
Haltigan reportedly possessed a memorable voice and stamina that matched that of the finest opera singer. With his baritone and slight Irish brogue, his voice resonated in the House Chamber which was notorious for its poor acoustics. “Not only does Pat trot out a big voice, a spectacular voice, a voice that more than justifies . . . poetic outburst,” lauded the San Francisco Chronicle, “but shows the populace a voice as resounding as a trumpet, a voice as clear as a silver bell, a voice as clarion as the call of the cavalry bugle, a voice as stirring as the tocsin from the steeple.” Haltigan preserved his pipes with great vigilance. “Dieting, plenty of sleep, one cigar a day” aided vocal clarity, he said. “If I have a hard day’s work ahead of me . . . I eat a very sparing breakfast. Just a little cereal, fruit, coffee, and rolls. Any singer will tell you that you will be short of breath if the stomach is overloaded. It’s the same way with speaking.”
Haltigan’s careful attention to his vocal chords and his bipartisan support in the House also reflected a broader impulse in the Progressive Era for reform and professionalization. His time in the House overlapped with a sharp rise of professional licensing requirements and national professional organizations that prioritized training and skill. Some of this was reflected in legislation; the Pendleton Act of 1883, for instance, required competitive examinations to determine whether a candidate was qualified for certain executive branch appointments. Although the law did not apply to congressional staff, by the early 20th-century government organizations left out of the Pendleton Act—including the Library of Congress in the legislative branch—began hiring employees based on merit. Other House employees like Harry Parker, an aide to the Ways and Means Committee, and the House’s attending physician, Dr. George Calver, survived changes in the majority by being good at their jobs. As one observer noted, “[Haltigan] holds down the job because he can’t very well be duplicated.”
The reading clerk’s contributions to the institution went beyond his dependable voice. For starters, he employed new time-saving techniques. By dropping the use of “Mister” at the front of each name, he saved approximately eight minutes per roll call. He spoke faster than previous clerks, making his way through the 435 names in a little more than 20 minutes and was once credited with saving 26 days of work in a single Congress. He seemed to know every Member “by their habits of dress, mannerisms, size and face,” noted columnist Herbert C. Plummer, who also pointed out that congressional reporters often flagged down Haltigan to help identify new Members at the opening of a Congress. “His job calls for accuracy, quick action, and, at times, unusual physical endurance, when the House sits all night,” the Boston Globe reported. Haltigan once boasted he could “call the roll forever if he could keep awake.”
Haltigan continued on the job until February 1937, when after nearly 26 years, a heart ailment forced him to take what was reportedly his first sick day. Unable to return to work, the House offered him an “indirect pension” (continuing his then-$5,000 annual salary) and hired a temporary assistant to fill in for him. Haltigan died a few months later on July 8, 1937, and newspapers across the country carried his obituary. “Always at his post, always vigilant in the discharge of his duties, always personally interested in preserving the high and noble traditions of this body,” recalled Speaker John Bankhead of Alabama on the House Floor, “he performed a public function of great and far-reaching importance in the legislative affairs of our Republic.”
In large measure, the “far-reaching” nature of Haltigan’s career extends to our modern age. In the early 1930s, Democrats opted to keep Hatigan’s Republican partner on the rostrum, Alney E. Chaffee, and even cited Haltigan’s retention under the GOP 16 years earlier as precedent for doing so. Chaffee’s service in the House spanned more than half a century until his death in 1957, and he, too, mentored multiple reading clerks hired by both parties, including Irving Swanson and Joe Bartlett in the 1940s and 1950s, who had their own long careers in the House. Today, the reading clerk is a professional, non-partisan position under the Office of the Clerk of the House.
Sources: Congressional Directory, various editions; Georgina Pell Curtis, The American Catholic Who’s Who (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1911); Making Appropriations for the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Expenses of the Government for the Fiscal Year Ending June Thirtieth, Nineteen Hundred and Thirteen, H.R. 24023, 62nd Cong. (1912); “Irving Swanson oral history interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [27 July 2004]; “Joe Bartlett oral history interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [14 June 2006]; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 29 November 1891; Courier-Journal (Hartford, CT), 5 March 1911; Washington Times, 27 April 1911; Christian Science Monitor, 28 April 1911; Oakland Tribune (Oakland, CA), 21 February 1917; Washington Herald, 26 May 1920; Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Logansport, IN), 20 January 1921; San Francisco Chronicle, 11 September 1921; Washington Post, 21 September 1924; Boston Globe, 13 May 1928; Lincoln Star (Lincoln, NE), 20 December 1931; Ames Daily Tribune (Ames, IA), 6 February 1933; Wilkes-Barre Record (Wilkes-Barre, PA), 26 February 1937; Samuel Haber, “Professionalization,” in The Oxford Companion to United States History, ed. Paul Boyer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Jane A. Rosenberg, “Patronage and Professionals: The Transformation of the Library of Congress Staff, 1890–1907,” Libraries & Culture 26, no. 2 (Spring, 1991): 251–268; Bureau of Labor Statistics, “CPI Inflation Calculator,” https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm.Follow @USHouseHistory