Ted Kennedy lived to talk policy, whether civil rights, No Child Left Behind or health care. But the Senate's liberal lion also loved to talk about Splash, one of his Portuguese water dogs. So I was sure to slip in a reference to the beloved dog when he called me in early 2005 from his car, en route with then-governor Mitt Romney to convince the Defense Department not to shut down military bases in Massachusetts.
"You know, Splash is here with me right now," Kennedy said. "He's in the back seat with Romney.''
The image of the impeccably coiffed governor sharing a small space with a gregarious canine was hard to imagine. "Senator, are you telling me you have put a large Portuguese water dog in the back of your SUV with the governor of Massachusetts?" I asked.
"Oh, Sunny's back there, too," Kennedy said with a chuckle, referring to his other, equally large Portie.
Kennedy was one of the few people who could have gotten away with sticking their state's governor in the back seat with two very active dogs. But as many lawmakers have found--and as I've observed after 28 years covering Congress--bringing the family dog to work does wonders for reducing the emotional temperature of Capitol Hill. The truth is that it's hard for people to yell when a dog is in the room.
Senator Kent Conrad's face softens when asked about Dakota, his bichon frisé. The North Dakota Democrat says that when he and other senators in the so-called Gang of Six were holding high-pressure talks last summer about the debt ceiling, "members would call my office before a meeting and say, 'Bring Dakota.' "
Conrad has nursed the pup through both Crohn's disease and lymphoma. "During hundreds and hundreds of hours of budget negotiations, it's been great to have this little guy," Conrad says. "He just puts things in perspective."
Dogs have long been welcome in the Capitol. Former senator Bob Dole had Leader, a schnauzer. In September 2000, the House Agriculture Committee was given a beagle, Angus, by the Department of Agriculture as a thank-you for committee work to protect members of the USDA's Beagle Brigade, which sniffs out travelers' luggage. House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer brought his English springer spaniel, Charlotte, to the office until the dog died in 2007.
Staffers on the Hill say the walking and poop-scooping required is worth it because lawmakers tend to be much easier to be around when their pets are with them.
A collie/shepherd mix named Truman travels back and forth with GOP congressman Glenn Thompson to his rural Pennsylvania district every week.
In Representative Peter DeFazio's office, fostering dogs is a group effort. DeFazio has brought a number of rescue dogs in, encouraging visitors to adopt them. Max, a Labrador, is living happily in Ohio after being claimed by a union official who fell in love with the dog during a visit with the Oregon Democrat.
Ted Kennedy liked to joke that even though dogs aren't allowed on the Senate floor, Splash had seen many lawmakers who weren't any better behaved than he was. Kennedy may have been right, but when dogs are around, the humans on the Hill do seem just a bit tamer.
Susan Milligan contributed to "Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy," a biography of the late senator.
This article appears in the May 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.