“Mr. Tax”

by John Lawrence

Forty-four years to the day since the Senate’s Watergate Committee began its hearings in the Russell Building’s ornate Caucus Room, friends and relatives of former House and Senate staffer Ed Greelegs gathered in the historic chamber – now named for Ted Kennedy – for his memorial. Once again, the federal government is mired in crisis and disbelief as a presidency appears to crumble before our collective eyes, but in the hearing room where Sam Ervin once presided, the speakers recalled a better time in this history of the Congress and the invaluable role Ed Greelegs played in making the machinery of government work for ordinary Americans.

In a world where most of the memorable characters have “Honorable” before their names, Eddie stood out as a personality you simply could not help but like and certainly could never forget. Funny, wry, knowledgeable, compassionate and well read to an unimaginable degree, Ed Greelegs was unique. With a pompadour of grey hair and a salt and pepper beard (I always thought: “Billy Joel clone”), a raspy voice and expressive hands, Ed stood out in the buttoned down world of Capitol Hill. Speaker after speaker recalled how he would engage with elevator operators, committee chairmen, young staffers trying to figure out the labyrinths of the Hill, and lobbyists whom he rarely hesitated to chastise or support, whichever was more appropriate.

Among the speakers at the memorial service were two of his former employers, Democratic Whip Dick Durbin and former Congressman Marty Russo (he also worked for Reps. Sam Gejdenson and Bob Eckhardt). Both men have represented Illinois ably, but are very different: Durbin the calm voice of reason, Russo the hard-nosed pol. Ed served both well by diligently handling legislative duties, by working collaboratively with staff, and by performing that vital service every legislator needs from a staffer: telling them when they are wrong. Russo recalled how, after casting a controversial vote that left him feeling estranged from his staff and colleagues, Greelegs reminded him that, while they disagreed on the policy call, he – and the rest of the staff – were there to support their boss unquestioningly. Russo said the conversation changed his life.

Ed loved policy – he modestly entitled himself “Mr. Tax” for his work on the Ways and Means Committee. Efforts to recast his career as a downtown lobbyist, like so many of his staff colleagues, just didn’t work for him, and he soon abandoned Gucci Gulf for the more familiar venue of the Congress. Like many of us who worked in an atmosphere fewer and fewer recall (or even believe is possible), Ed regularly reached across party lines to figure out how to serve constituents or for a cause, because that is how you succeed in politics. He was the proverbial go-to guy who got things done, without partisan rhetoric and without drawing attention, or credit, to himself.

I spent less time talking with Ed about tax policy than about history, one of his many academic passions. Friends at the memorial, including his wife Susan and Russo, recalled the unbelievable clutter of books, newspapers and magazines that marked Ed’s desk at work and study at home. It was a rare topic on which Ed could not only hold forth knowledgeably but also offer scholarly citations to back up his viewpoints. It was impossible to leave any conversation with Ed without feeling that you had certainly learned more than you had contributed, and yet Ed never exuded a scintilla of intellectual elitism or arrogance.

Ed became ill some ago and his health suffered periodic setbacks in recent years. He passed away on March 28 at just 66, decades before he should have left us. The wide assemblage of members, former members, staff and ex-staff, lobbyists and others who filled the Kennedy Caucus Room with tears, applause and laughter was a fitting testimonial to the achievements and modesty of a really good guy who will be sorely missed.