In the early 1990s, a disgruntled John Boehner turned to Jo-Marie St. Martin for guidance. A younger member of what was then called the House Education and Labor Committee, Boehner felt the Democratic majority wasn't adequately listening to the Republicans.
It was St. Martin who would hatch a plan to use a little-known and now-defunct rule to temporarily halt the committee proceeding and, in effect, put Boehner's frustration on display.
"This was our way of expressing our discontent," says St. Martin, who served as the committee's education counsel. "It made me realize that these are very useful tools."
St. Martin, 55, is a scholar of those useful tools, known as the "House rules." And for nearly 15 years, she has helped Boehner use them to the GOP's advantage.
Her current position as general counsel and chief of legislative operations to the speaker is an influential one: She oversees all aspects of procedure for the House, the Republican Conference, and committees. She advises Boehner on filing lawsuits, like the one opposing President Obama's health care law. She's his ethics officer. And she's one of his top advisers.
"[She] really serves as an institutional voice for the speaker's office," says Mike Sommers, Boehner's chief of staff. "And in many ways is the conscience of our operations. She has a hand in just about everything that we do."
St. Martin has made a career out of knowing the intricate, and rather complex, House rules—something that pairs well with her affinity for logic. Born in a small, industrial town in upper East Tennessee, St. Martin was always scientifically inclined. She majored in math and physics at Mary Washington College, then did an about-face and became a lawyer.
"I used to laughingly tell people in law school, 'You have no idea what the word logic means,'" she says, "but as a consequence of that, thinking one way mathematically and then learning in law school to really think a very different way, it really produced a third way [of thinking]."
She took that third way of thinking to the House Education and Labor Committee, serving as its education counsel and later as its general counsel. But she found herself constantly serving in an advisory role, as members came to her with questions on the rules: "'Jo-Marie, how do you do this?' 'I want to try and stop this from happening, what do you do?'" St. Martin recalls. "So as a consequence, I learned—I really learned—my craft. I learned everything you could know about a committee rule or a committee practice."
St. Martin started learning the House rules as an intern in the House Rules Committee between her first and second years of law school. She studied books and Congressional Research Service reports on the procedures. She took parliamentary classes run by the Republican leader beginning in 1986, her first year working in the House. And she watched and absorbed the inner workings of the House floor.
"You can have all the policy in the world," St. Martin says, "but if you've got the rules on your side, you really can curb what happens in the House."
And, sometimes, in a manner of seconds, she has had to make decisions that have the ability to stop a bill in its tracks. In those moments, St. Martin is calm. She thinks through the rules and tells GOP members she'll explain what's going on later. She prides herself on her "nerves of steel."
St. Martin used the rules to give the Republican Party a voice when it was in the minority. And she uses them now to help advance GOP interests—and also to help Boehner fight against what Republicans call the "imperial presidency."
Since Boehner assumed the Education and the Workforce chairmanship in 2001, St. Martin has been a trusted member of his staff—and moved up in the ranks alongside him. St. Martin says her boss has a history of surrounding himself with strong, capable women, such as his former chief of staff, who died suddenly in 2010.
"This is my best piece of advice, especially to young women: Learn your craft," she says. "Really do your work well and people are just not going to care that you're male or female. They just won't. I can tell you I've never, ever felt that barrier ever."
St. Martin is "a fierce guardian of Congress's institutional power," wrote Becca Glover Watkins—who's communications director for Sen. Richard Burr, R-S.C., and who previously worked for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee—in an email.
And she's a resource for other members as well, hence the nickname "Aunt Jo-Marie," which Sommers says is a running joke and a nod to her ability to give both professional and personal advice not only to Boehner, but to other House Republicans.
That's input Dave Heil says has been helpful when making decisions.
"She's an insider's insider," says Heil, chief of staff to Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas. "She's been around. She knows the House. She knows how it works, and I value her input very much."
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