For a decade, Linda Melconian was a legislative assistant and assistant counsel for Representative Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts as he served as Majority Whip, Majority Leader, and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. During her time on Capitol Hill, she became one of the first women staff members to hold floor privileges in all three House leadership offices.
Linda Melconian was a recent college graduate when Congressman Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill of Massachusetts hired her in 1971. During the next decade, she worked closely with O’Neill as he moved up the leadership ladder from Majority Whip, to Majority Leader, and, finally, to Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. As one of the first women to hold floor privileges in all three House leadership offices, Melconian offers a unique perspective on floor proceedings, leadership initiatives, and the role of women staff members in the House.
In this oral history, Melconian recalls her path from her hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, to Capitol Hill, where she started as a legislative assistant working on the House Floor for Majority Whip O’Neill. She outlines the structure of the Democratic whip operation, including the role of congressional staff in counting votes and crafting and conveying the message of leadership. She recounts her observations in O’Neill’s office during the Watergate investigation, offering a first-hand account of the way the crisis unfolded on the House Floor.
Melconian also discusses her roles as a speechwriter, researcher, and assistant counsel for O’Neill during his terms as Majority Leader and Speaker. Reflecting on Speaker O’Neill’s efforts to shape the Democratic Party’s agenda during the 1970s, she provides insight into his legislative priorities, leadership style, and his relationship with President Jimmy Carter. She highlights O’Neill’s focus on ethics reform and his foreign policy efforts, from his involvement in the Camp David Accords to his interest in finding a peaceful solution to the political violence in Northern Ireland. She also chronicles her experience on a congressional delegation to Europe in April 1979, where she joined Speaker O’Neill as he visited the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
Linda Melconian was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, the daughter of Virginia Melconian, a homemaker, and George Melconian, a line-type machinist for the local newspapers. She attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she secured an internship on Capitol Hill with Massachusetts Representative Edward Boland. She also worked as an intern for Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine before graduating from college in 1970.
As part of then-Majority Whip O’Neill’s staff, Melconian learned the workings of the institution from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. She represented Whip O’Neill on the House Floor and was educated in the finer points of legislating through her interactions with Members of Congress. She participated in vote-counting and the behind-the-scenes dialogue that shaped important legislation.
When O’Neill became Majority Leader in 1973, Melconian added speechwriting and research to her duties on the House Floor. She also worked to build connections between the Speaker and the Democratic Caucus in anticipation of O’Neill’s future campaign for Speaker by planning district visits and serving as a liaison between Members and the Speaker on legislative matters.
During O’Neill’s Speakership, Melconian was involved in the Speaker’s effort to implement ethics guidelines and revise the seniority system and the committee selection process. She also assisted the Speaker in his forays into U.S. foreign policy, providing information and accompanying him during meetings with visiting dignitaries in Washington, DC, and abroad.
After completing law school at George Mason University, Melconian served as assistant counsel to Speaker O’Neill before returning to Springfield to run for a vacant seat in the Massachusetts state senate in 1981. The following year she won election to the first of 11 terms in the Massachusetts legislature, rising to become the first woman to hold the title of majority leader in the state senate. She resides in Springfield and teaches courses in government and politics at Suffolk University in Boston.