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The Voice of Lawmaking

In the Maryland General Assembly, C. Rhoades Whitehill reads every last bill … Out loud

“It’s a little bit like calling a baseball game or a horserace,” says C. Rhoades Whitehill, Reading Clerk for the House of Delegates.

With up to 2,000 bills churning through each chamber in the Maryland General Assembly, you might wonder who reads them all.  
    Legislators? Not a chance.
    Who you gonna call? Only one number in Annapolis, that of C. Rhoades Whitehill, Reading Clerk for the Maryland House of Delegates.
    How many? Last year, Whitehill says, “That was 1,600, nearer to 1,700.”
    Whitehill announces each bill with its number, sponsor and assigned committee, which he repeats with other bits of information as a bill moves toward becoming law. Successful bills — 470 or so were passed last year to become law — he reads up to four times during the three-month session.
    Day after day Whitehill, 54, stands military straight at the podium at the right hand of House Speaker Michael Busch.  
    In the early weeks of each session, bills trickle across his podium. The trickle becomes a Niagara-force cascade on the early February Thursday one-third of the way through session that is the bill-submission deadline. With 300 or so bills to announce in a single day, Whitehill’s voice speeds to auctioneer pace. Then it blurs into incomprehensibility, legislators say, though each word remains perfectly enunciated.
    “That’s what people tell me, but it’s not something I’ve really thought about,” Whitehill says. “It’s a little bit like calling a baseball game or a horserace.”
    One deadline Thursday, a sympathetic legislator asked Whitehill if there was anything she could do to ease his burden.
     “Johnny Walker, maybe,” he said.
     Later that day, Whitehill discovered a bottle of Johnny Walker — Black Label — beneath the podium where he works.
    Whitehill’s breath control in achieving his verbal feats might be due to a lifetime as a trombone player. The West Virginia native played well enough at 18 to successfully audition for the U.S. Naval Academy Band. He played there for 14 years, eventually winning the premier position a Navy musician can aspire to, a seat in the United States Navy Band in Washington.
    “Dumb luck” is how Whitehill modestly describes his Statehouse career of a dozen years.
     A year into retirement from the Navy Band, “I just applied to the cattle call in The Capital, help wanted for the legislative session,” he says. As dumb luck would have it, the last reading clerk had had to depart the job on short notice. Somehow, Whitehill’s resume rose to the top. He is now the longest serving reader to hold that House of Delegates job.
    As well as upright bearing and a strong voice, honesty and accuracy make a successful reading clerk.
    The reading clerk holds absolute authority over the record of every member of the House and, in effect, the destiny of each bill. It’s his hands on the computer screen that control what goes up in lights on the official Board of House action.
    So he has to get it right. And make it look effortless.
    For Whitehill those are old habits, mastered as a Navy musician expected to set the standard as the best of the best. Even so, he’s human, as House Minority Leader Nic Kipke attests.
    “I sit up front now,” the Anne Arundel delegate says. “Every once in a while, I see a bead of sweat.”