Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Whipping Up Shrimp and Grits

By Baynard Woods

“It’s the Boss,” Barvetta Singletary whispered away from her mouthpiece when we walked in the room. That’s how people in his office refer to Jim Clyburn—either as the Whip, or the Boss.

Kristie Greco, his Communications Director, quickly ushered me back out into the hallway.

“The Whip is back in South Carolina today, but he has Barvetta on the phone to talk about something. Healthcare, probably,” she guessed.

It was a good guess.

A lot of people wonder what happened to healthcare. Not Barvetta Singletary. She carries it around with her in a big white binder.

“I should have better biceps,” Singletary joked when she finished her call.

As Clyburn’s Policy Director, a health policy specialist, and a trained nurse, Singletary is partly responsible for crafting the bill that the Whip will bring to Obama’s February 25 bi-partisan meeting with members from both houses of Congress. Like the President’s proposal, the binder that Singletary has been lugging around is modeled after the Senate’s previous bill, without some of the things “that the public is obviously not happy with.”

One of these things—also scuttled by Obama’s proposal—is the generally unpopular “Cadillac” tax on fancy insurance policies. “But the major areas are very similar in that we want to improve insurance for those who currently have it,” she said. “Companies won’t be able to rescind coverage-”

Singletary’s cell-phone rang. I took the opportunity to look down at the binder.

The Whip’s office is not in the House office buildings, but in the Capitol itself. Especially with the new visitor’s center, everything in the building seemed like a museum, simultaneously characterized by classical white marble and rococo gold leaf. It was hard to imagine that anything actually got done in such a place. With Congress on recess, and all of the Republicans jockeying for position at the conservative CPAC conference across town, it felt like a mausoleum. And yet, here was this down to earth woman with this plain white binder. There was no gold leaf anywhere.

The bill in the binder looked a bit smaller than the hefty thing the Republicans were hoisting about at their town hall meetings, but the main difference, Singletary said, is that they are working to put it into “plain English so that the average person can understand it.”

After months of around-the-clock meetings, Singletary finds it funny to listen to some of the critics who say everything was kept in secret. In fact, she says, “it has been the most discussed bill” that some members of Congress can remember.

“The Democratic caucus is extremely diverse,” she said. That diversity brings a richness of perspective to negotiations, but it can make it difficult for people to come to an agreement. As the Policy Director for the highly political office of the Whip, it is Singletary’s job to marry pure policy with raw politics. Singletary has obvious respect for Clyburn, but even they don’t always agree.

“But, the Whip is so pragmatic and measured that he’ll hear you out,” she said. “If my position is different than where he is, I have to convince him.”

In fact, since she comes from Clyburn’s district, Singletary says that sometimes she goes to him as a constituent and not as an advisor. She comes from the “two stoplight town” of Hemingway. It is improbable that this tiny hamlet should have propelled her to this position. She was not even born when Clyburn was jailed during the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties. But when she was in the ninth grade, she found herself “smack dab in the middle” of a controversy in her hometown.

The largely white town of Hemingway wanted to secede from predominately black Williamsburg County and annex itself to Florence County five miles down the road. The measure was widely seen as racially motivated. The secession was to be put to a vote. The black response was born in Singletary’s home church. She sometimes sang “the old Civil Rights gospel hymns” at the beginning of organizing meetings and marches. The measure was defeated. She has continued down that political path, but sometimes misses the chance to sing.

Whenever Singletary suffers from exhaustion, she looks towards the Boss. “While I may think my schedule is crazy, I look at his sometimes and he’s in three different cities. Then he flies up to D.C. and then has a day and a night of meetings and gets up and starts all over again at 7:00 in the morning.” She recalled telling him last summer that “something is wrong here. You’re so vibrant. You keep going and going and I am so tired.”

To an outsider, Singletary is pretty vibrant herself, often breaking out into laughter as we talked. And yet, in addition to healthcare she has been working on the Jobs Bill and Appropriations.

“One of the things I love about the Boss is that he is an unapologetic advocate for South Carolina,” she said. “And not one time has he backed away from the earmark argument.”

Senator Jim DeMint had just finished another round in that argument. Televisions mounted on the walls behind us, played the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, where DeMint preached the evils of earmarks. Most notably, he said that he refused “to commit my children and grandchildren to a lifetime of debt slavery because people in Washington are too willing to trade freedom for earmarks and kickbacks!”

According to Singletary, Republican activists and politicians often come to the Whip to ask for an earmark. “But they don’t want to admit it. In the last couple of years, the Boss has essentially said to people if you ever come up to me and ask for these earmarks you better defend them back home.”

Clyburn brings some of the largesse of Washington back to South Carolina, but he also brings a South Carolina flavor to the Capitol. Recently, “The Hill” newspaper reported that Clyburn’s vote counts at the end of the day got a “little bit liquid.”

When I asked about his drink of choice, Singletary said, “The liquid conversation and the liquid counting have somehow bypassed me.” She laughed. “What I do like is that at our weekly Whip meetings you can be sure that there’s going to be grits somewhere on the menu. His touch has always been to do the shrimp or grits. Before him it was bagels and donuts.”

Outside the conference room, the Capitol was still washed in a baroque silence. As I waited for the gilded elevator and watched Singletary walk away with her big white binder, I didn’t know where health care was going. But it made me feel a bit better to know that there were real people working on it and that they were eating shrimp and grits.

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