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Hammering Home the Message

The equation is E = mv2/2.

It's the mathematical expression defining how to hammer a nail into a board. The amount of energy transferred from one swing of the hammer equals half the size of the mass of the hammer head multiplied by the square of the speed of the head when the hammer meets the nail.

That phenomenon seemed to elude House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) this week as she and other Congressional leaders gathered on the West Front of the Capitol to begin the ceremonial construction of the stage and bleachers for the nation's 57th inauguration in January.

On a brilliant Thursday morning drenched with sun, Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers led the lawmakers out to a series of hardwood planks, decorated with hard hats. Construction workers stood nearby. Six nails protruded from the wood. Hammers rested nearby for House and Senate members to drive the nails into the wood at the end of the ceremony.

As he walked up, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) immediately grabbed his hammer, made a comically menacing face and acted as though he was going to rap Pelosi on the head with it. Pelosi wasn't even looking at Boehner at the time. Following brief remarks, the lawmakers took their respective hammers and banged away at the nails.

This was no problem for Boehner. Same for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN).

Each drove their nails into the wood with the economy of a few strokes.

But that was not the case for Pelosi.

Long after the others were done, the Calfiornia Democrat, standing off on one end, continued to tap.

She paused briefly. Pelosi then smiled and with a determined grin, began hammering some more. First a round of six strokes. Then a respite. 21 strokes. Then another rest. That was followed by two circuits of eight strokes apiece. The nail began listing slightly to one side, still not buried in the wood. Meantime, Eric Cantor stood right next to Pelosi. He was seemingly amused, but offered no assistance. Someone in the crowd suggested that Cantor would have done the same had Boehner had trouble driving his nail into the plywood.

Boehner finally came to Pelosi's aid. He seized the hammer, momentarily inspected the task at hand, measuring the stubborn nail his eyes. And with a singularly efficient thwack, the Speaker of the House dispatched the rogue nail into the plank.

The crowd cheered.

Perhaps the problem for Pelosi was that she was using the wrong tool. An observer commented that all Pelosi needed to say was that the nail would have been no trouble were she still wielding the Speaker's gavel. The overgrown gavel she used when they passed the health care law a few years ago would have done the trick as well.

But the persistent tapping of the nail by Pelosi is demonstrative of the approach the Minority Leader is taking to regaining control of the House.

For several months now, Pelosi has laid out a map where she thinks Democrats have a good shot at picking up swaths of seats in California, New York and Illinois. But it doesn't push the Democrats over the top. But that's where Pelosi's "tap, tap, tap" with the hammer reflects her message this campaign season.

"Then you go to the onesy, twosy states. And that's Maryland, Washington state, Arizona, Iowa," Pelosi said. She also thinks Democrats may win two seats in Nevada, a seat in New Hampshire, some seats in Florida and have shots in Colorado.

Of course, that's mitigated by seats her party could lose in Oklahoma, North Carolina and Arkansas. But nonetheless, this is Pelosi's message. A persistent tap-tap-tap with the hammer that Pelosi believes will put the House in play this fall.

Boehner's sole, decisive hammer stroke reflects a message as well. It's representative of how Boehner's trumpeted the ability of the House to swiftly approve legislation, compared to the languid Senate.

"Nobody thought we could change from the inside. You can't tell me you can't fix Washington from the inside," Boehner said. He noted that the House upheld the general tenets of the GOP's 2010 electoral document known as "The Pledge to America."

In fact, Boehner even explained why it was a fruitless exercise to put certain bills on the floor. Lawmakers and interest groups from both sides are up in arms that Congress didn't finish the farm bill before leaving to campaign.

"We don't typically put bills on the floor where we're expecting failure," Boehner said.

Boehner plans to debate a farm bill in the lame duck session. But he offered no clue what it may look like.

"It's too early to determine the mood members are in," Boehner said.

Boehner may not know the contours of a post-election farm bill. But he was clear about one point. Andrew Taylor of the Associated Press asked the Speaker if Republicans would be forced to raise taxes in the lame duck if President Obama won re-election.

"No," Boehner replied, with precision mirroring his hammer stroke.

Like Boehner's performance with the hammer, the House is designed for a determined majority to move issues quickly. That's a stark contrast to the strictures of the Senate which allows even just one senator to cast a wrench into the works.

Boehner drove home that Senate message when a reporter asked him about Democrats criticizing the Speaker when they held a rally on the House steps.

"Really?" replied sarcastically. "Instead of having a demonstration on the House steps, maybe they should have one on the Senate steps."

And that's where Boehner adhered to his long-running narrative of the House passing more than 30 jobs bills - all to arrive in the Senate's dead letter office.

When it comes to messaging, the Senate upheld its end of the bargain too this week. Senators lingered for days waiting to finish an interim spending bill to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the month. The House approved the same bill last week with no sweat. But the Senate had to hopscotch through a series of procedural hoops just to shut off debate on the legislation and begin a vote series shortly after midnight on Saturday. The Senate finally finished its work at 4:03 Saturday morning.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) blasted out a press release, hailing that his filibuster helped get a vote on his bill to trim aid for Pakistan, Egypt and Libya.

Paul's measure failed 81-10.

Message management was paramount on Capitol Hill this week. Even in the most obscure of ways.

GOP Vice Presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) descended on the Capitol for a second time to vote on a welfare reform measure. Ryan hung for a few minutes in Boehner's ceremonial office just off the House floor and then emerged to vote. I queried Ryan about Mitt Romney's controversial "47 percent" line that drove much of the news cycle this week.

"Look, I'm here to vote. I'm not going to get into any of that stuff," said Ryan dutifully. He knew that any off-the-cuff comment on this could spoil the campaign's effort to do damage control.

So since Ryan is often propounding his rock-and-roll narrative, I asked Ryan what was his favorite Led Zeppelin song. Ryan declared that "When the Levee Breaks" was his "old favorite song." He also suggested that "Four Sticks" is great. But then Ryan declared that "Out on the Gallows Pole is my favorite."

One astute Zeppelin observer who didn't want to be identified characterized Ryan's choice as a "strange pick." It's an obscure, acoustical cover of a folksong complete with chord progressions on banjo and mandolin.

However, the Zeppelin expert noted it was "nice that Ryan didn't just pick an obvious, safe track to mention. He even doubts himself on the name."

That's because the tune is simply called "Gallows Pole" and not "Out on the Gallows Pole" as Ryan said.

That could be the only time all week any lawmaker didn't strictly adhere to their message.

On Wednesday, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) brought John Woodard, his wife Joan and their son John III of Mocksville, NC to a House Rules Committee hearing on coal legislation. She introduced the family to the entire panel during an open hearing, noting that John III was going for his Eagle Scout badge. He had been with the Congresswoman for much of the day, observing government in action to fulfill his citizenship requirement.

Sessions of the House Rules Committee can be some of the most entertaining and simultaneously frustrating events on Capitol Hill. Members consistently carp at one another. And the deck is stacked so the majority side always prevails on a vote.

House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-CA) knew that the Woodards were in for a treat.

"Having to sit through a Rules Committee meeting is worth several merit badges," Dreier quipped.

And those adhering to their narratives, with the succinctness of a hammer blow, certainly deserve a merit badge or two as well.

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