Lessons of a Congressional Fellow

Lessons of a Congressional Fellow

> David J. Webber, MU Political Science, Fall 1993

Lessons of a Congressional Fellow: Professional Insights and Personal Renewal

Serving as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow from November 1992 to August 1993 proved professionally enriching and personally rewarding. The Fellows program included over forty professionals from federal agencies, journalism, medicine, and academia and provided a work and career development experience on Capitol Hill. Almost every day brought new experiences and insights about Congress, the U.S. political system, and the political science discipline.

Formally, I had the responsibilities of a professional staff member with the Congressional Sunbelt Caucus and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee; I wrote issue briefs; tracked science, technology, and education issues; and planned policy briefings, a committee staff seminar, and a proposal for a committee hearing. Informally, I was at once a vacationer to a political Disneyland, a pilgrim to the institutional center of American Democracy, and an observer in the laboratory of self-government.

The Fellowship provided an opportunity for an "up close and personal" view of our political system, allowing me to test my understanding of how Congress works. In addition to insights gained by interacting with over twenty-five offices, and interviewing in seven of them to find a mutually agreed on assignment, I sought out seminars, discussion groups, and even took a U.S. Department of Agriculture graduate course on "Congressional Operations" to increase my exposure to the Congressional environment.

Along with lasting impressions of "being there" for the presidential inauguration, important votes on the Clinton budget, and a wide variety of special events, I stockpiled observations, ideas, and suggestions that will influence my teaching, research, and choice of professional activities. This essay reviews my newly gained and refined impressions of Congress, reflections on the usefulness of my political science training, and suggestions for improving the education of future staffers--our students of today. My perspective is that of a public policy specialist, not a Congressional scholar, whose major research interest is the use of policy knowledge by policy-makers.

Impressions of Congress

Almost each day I made it possible to be out of my office to attend a committee hearing, an interest group issue briefing, or a lecture on current political issues. Additionally, I observed many of the meetings of the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress and spent hours in the House and Senate galleries watching the votes on the Family and Medical Leave Act, the economic stimulus package, and the fiscal year 1994 budget reconciliation resolution. I was in the audience for the CBS morning news program with freshmen members on the first day of the 103rd Congress, chatted with more than twenty Senators and Representatives in the elevators and on the street, and looked for every chance to walk through the Capitol. The most striking characteristics of Congress, based on my experience, are its (1) size and dynamics, (2) the dominance of constituent mail, (3) the-less-than stellar committee hearings, (4) the staff's oral culture, (5) the long incubation of policy ideas, (6) excessive member accommodation, and the (7) nature of chamber rivalry and partisanship. As a result of my experiences, I believe that the American people need to be better educated about the true workings of Congress.

Size and Dynamics of Congress
While sounding simplistic, an ever-present and overwhelming characteristic of Congress is its size. Congress is a big and busy: 540 elected lawmakers and 20,000 staffers housed in 5 House buildings and 3 Senate Buildings scramble to orchestrate committee hearings, constituent visits, staff and caucus meetings, press conferences, speaking engagements. No state legislature could accurately serve as a smaller scale model of the U.S. Congress. Just getting the necessary people moving in the same direction is a tall task. Effective leadership is the ability to get an issue on the Congressional agenda and line up sufficient member and staff interest and support to "move legislation."

In addition to members and staff leaving the Congress voluntarily, or at the behest of the voters, there is a good deal of movement within the Congress with both members and staffers changing their policy priorities and becoming more active on some issues and less active on others. Sponsors of legislation need to make a variety of strategic decisions concerning desirable co-sponsors, the preferred committee (or committees) to which the bill might be referred, the relationship between the sponsored bill and competing or compatible legislation, and the timing of introducing and moving the bill. Congress has such a dynamic environment, as is reflected in many chapters of political science works such as CONGRESS RECONSIDERED, that the "textbook Congress" and the "how a bill becomes a law" approach to teaching about Congress are really misleading: we should accept the professional responsibility to find a better snapshot explanation of how Congress works.

Constituent Mail
The pace of members' offices and the volume of constituent mail is simply beyond belief; constituent mail dominates many, probably most, maybe even all, Congressional offices. Responding to constituent mail seems to be the primary responsibility of office operations. One veteran House member reported that last year he received about 550 "constituent contacts" per week; this year it is about 1,300 constituent contacts per week. Few staffers I talked with expressed positive views of the mail. One administrative assistant commented that most of the mail comes from "senior citizens and people who don't have other things to do. "Another staffer mentioned that before he came to the Hill he had expected that about fifty percent of a member's time was constituent and re-election focused; now he figured it was more like eighty percent. Despite all the attention staff give constituent opinion and that political scientists give public opinion, I often wondered if either group adequately understands the role public opinion plays in affecting Congress and its members.

As is widely known, both Senators and Representatives have numerous committee memberships such that it is impossible for them to attend and participate fully in all meetings. In practice members concentrate their legislative activity on one or two committees and are fairly inactive on their remaining committees, but they retain their seats in the event they wish to become involved in a particular issue. Consequently, committee hearings are notoriously poorly attended, with members dropping by to ask a question or two before rushing on to other activities. Compared with the five state legislatures that I have observed closely, I believe that attendance and participation in formal committee meeting is less in the Congress than in the state legislatures.

Even when not interrupted by floor votes (mainly in the House), committee hearings are fragmented and very uneven in quality. On the issues that I followed closely, I found the committee hearings to be disappointing and the witnesses' expertise underutilized. One hopes that the witnesses' written responses to questions are used effectively by committee staffers. In watching several committee markups, I found that the committee did not perform error- correction very well--a member would erroneously assert the position of an agency head or the views of a witness who had appeared before the committee, for example, and no member would challenge his/her statement.

Congressional Staff
Congress has an oral culture. Staffers, especially personal staff, don't read much--they pick up the phone even when a second's thought would provide the answer. If they hear about a Congressional Research Service report, for example, staffers don't order it and read it--they call the author and ask him/her about it. The most common way to "follow an issue" is to call around committee staffs or the bill sponsor's office stating that you "are new to the issue" and then ask about the status of the bill. Even if your initial contact is not informed on the issue, he/she will usually suggest another potential, usually more prestigious, contact, giving you the legitimacy to call and casually state that "Mary Smith with Senator Seniority suggested that I call you." Networking appears to be a prime objective and preoccupation of staffers.

Congressional staffers are known for not returning phone calls, so one needs to develop a well-balanced temperament of ambition, persistence, and tolerance of rejection. While I had been advised by previous Fellows about the prevalence of unreturned calls, I did not fully appreciate this until the day that I had persevered and made it, finally, into the office of a subcommittee staff director (due, in part, to the help of my hometown Congressman). The staff director offered me a seat and said he would be glad to speak with me after he returned his phone calls. I watched him pick up a stack of about fifteen pink slips, scan through them, and toss all but three into the wastebasket. After he returned those three calls, he gave me more than a half hour of his time suggesting members and committee slots that he thought would be interesting and appropriate for me. He was most helpful.

Congressional staffers are talented and hard-working. The Congressional environment is active and open, with lots of highly motivated, congenial people. Professional expertise is seldom recognized; greater currency is placed on who you know and "who you can get to know." Generally I found staffers welcoming my ideas and suggestions but never asking me for my opinion. One colleague Fellow frequently felt personally insulted that no one ever asked her for her opinion.

Many staffers are impressively informed about both Hill and Washington policy developments. They retain, however, much of this acquired information for themselves, sharing it only when it benefits them. I suggested to one staffer that the committee staff director should have a periodic newsletter listing all the Congressional and off-Hill reports that crossed his desk. When the staffer said that generally the staff director doesn't even know all that is going on, I replied that the existence of the newsletter would motivate staffers to alert the staff director so that the entire committee staff would be contributing to the director's newsletter and benefitting from its content. The staffer responded in the stereotypical way: "Why would a staffer want to share his contacts and lose his privileged sources of information?" Combined with the prevailing oral culture norm of infrequent written reports and memos, this view of the private benefit of information contributes to a loss of institutional memory among members and staff.

Member offices and committees are inundated with late-breaking press releases and reports generated from within Congress or provided by interest groups and policy networks that are well organized and active. Currently, faxes are the information technology of choice, and it will be a challenge to integrate E-mail and the Internet into the Congressional environment. Two Hill norms will be challenged by electronic communication: the expectation of response and the disposability of the communication. Congressional offices are diligent in responding to traditional mail, but less so for faxes and phone calls. Will E-mail require the personal response of traditional mail? Is the deletion of electronic messages equivalent to the destruction of written correspondence? If so, do staffers need to maintain a file of E-mail communication that becomes part of the permanent record? In an oral culture that often has a limited paper trail, E-mail may either change institutional norms or remain underutilized.

Given their positions of responsibility and influence, and their personal talents and ambitions, I was surprised to find that many staffers seemed to accept popularly held views about the deficiencies of Congress. Mid-level staffers tended to take a parochial view of Congressional policy-making--generally, if it was not their issue or their member they didn't appear to be aware of current Congressional events. Staffers seemed to be hyper-critical of members and institutional practices but voiced helplessness about their potential to improve the Congress. Several staffers suggested that Congress needs major reform, and that perhaps Ross Perot would be the spark for a public outcry for reform, but they saw little hope for meaningful reform coming from within. One staffer believed that the best avenue for reform was the establishment of a network of citizen watchdog groups that closely followed member campaign fundraising, committee attendance, and other activities, reporting these to constituents back home.

New Policy Ideas?
While I can't say there aren't any new ideas on the Hill, ideas have been floating on Capitol Hill long before the public becomes aware/interested in them. National Service Youth Corp, managed competition, and information superhighways became better known due to the Clinton-Gore campaign last fall, but they all have been around for several years. Even agency performance assessment, a basic component of Vice President Gore's "Reinventing Government," had been first introduced by Republican Senator WIlliam Roth several years ago and was approved by the Senate before the 1992 elections; it was finally being passed by both chambers and signed by President Clinton in August 1993. The length of this policy fermentation process is, of course, a mixed blessing. While policy adoption is a time-consuming process, ideas are in development for a sufficient length of time that the opportunity for their refinement is certainly present.

Members Accommodation

Members are accommodating to one another--perhaps too accommodating--especially in the Senate. One illustrative moment was when Senator George Mitchell, the majority leader, announced that he was cracking down: "From now on," he announced, "fifteen minute votes need to be completed within twenty minutes." Senator Mitchell, on several occasions, expressed frustration with the difficulty in keeping his intention not to schedule floor votes after 7 PM because senators were not available earlier in the day.

A second serious problem arising from accommodation is the increase in size of committees--over the past 15 years the number of committee slots increased about twenty-five percent with several House committees now having more than fifty members.

Bicameral and Partisan Relations

Finally, I observed two features of legislative behavior that I had seen in several state legislatures but had not expected to see in Congress: the contentious nature of bicameral relations and seemingly low level of daily partisan conflict. While I was aware of the chamber rivalry between the Senate and the House I had thought this was mainly a battle for institutional prestige; I was, therefore, surprised at the practical conflict between the chambers. Among the topics of conflict were the Senate's practice of loading House bills with non-related issues because of its lack of a germaneness rule. Another point of conflict is the lack of Senate re-authorizations and its practice of relying extensively on the appropriations process to, in effect, authorize programs. At least from the House perspective, bill sponsors had to be acutely aware of within-Senate jurisdictional rivalries and policy preferences in the other chamber in drafting a bill that would have a reasonable chance of being successfully voted out of both chambers.

On the other hand, I was surprised at the low level of partisan conflict on routine, day-to-day issues; especially among more senior members. The apparent bipartisan cooperation in marking-up substantive bills, in staffing some committees (e.g.; several instances of minority staffers becoming staff directors, several staffers changing party offices), and in the bipartisan issue caucuses caused me to wonder on several occasions whether party conflict is not more of an artifact of the electoral system rather than a result of inherent ideological and partisan differences. Recently, I have heard both members and analysts observe that Congressional parties are stronger, and partisan conflict is greater, than in the past, but I suspect that this is due to greater concern for electoral fortunes than a result of deeper held partisan beliefs. Compare, for example, the partisan budget stances with the bipartisan environment surrounding the first discussions of health reform. My tentative explanation is that electoral incentives, not partisan beliefs or ideological differences, are the forces behind partisan conflict and the widely perceived "gridlock."

Need for Educating Citizens About Congress

Members of Congress do not do a good job of explaining the institution to the American people. A good deal has been written about "running for Congress by running against Congress," and this campaign technique is doubly effective with uninformed citizens. Both political scientists and members of Congress themselves could play a mighty role in communicating effectively how the institution works and what are reasonable criteria to which its performance should be measured. As I wrote in a letter to the editor of ROLL CALL in May 1993, I believe Congress needs to establish a Congressional Communications Office that would house a variety of Smithsonian-quality exhibits: a film about a typical day of a typical member, an interactive computer display of "how a bill becomes a law," samples of actual bills and committee reports, a video demonstration of common floor procedures, displays of the CONGRESSIONAL RECORD and other relevant publications, and trained lecturers (people experienced in teaching various age groups) explaining the Congressional process, not just the history of the Capitol. A Congressional Communications Office would do wonders to teach the American people how Congress goes about doing its work. I can even imagine a traveling exhibit so that viewership is not limited to citizens who can physically visit the Capitol.

Reflections on the Public Policy and American Politics Literature

In addition to the insights about Congress I obtained from my fellowship experience, being in the Congressional environment caused me to take a fresh look at my academic training and our political science discipline. In short, I found it to be more useful than I had expected. Most importantly, I felt that based on my political science training I generally understood what was going on. In conversations with staffers and other fellows, my academic perspective was usually welcomed (but never asked for!), and well received. I came to appreciate the broader, longer, systemic view of the American political system that is the calling card of academic political scientists and much needed in discussions of Congressional reform and policy development.

On the other hand, I continue to believe, perhaps as a result of my public policy orientation, that political scientists specializing in American politics and government are too uncritically accepting of the legitimacy and performance of Congress. Too often, it seems to me, political scientists either fail to comprehend or too rapidly dismiss serious criticisms or our governing institutions. I suspect that the members of Congress who testified before the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress are more critical of Congress than are the political scientists who study it.

Usefulness of Journals

The Fellowship experience also provided a fresh perspective by which to assess disciplinary literature. I found our disciplinary journals to be more useful than I had cynically expected. On two occasions, once in the POLICY STUDIES JOURNAL and once in the JOURNAL OF POLICY ANALYSIS AND MANAGEMENT, I found symposium issues that were directly useful to projects on which I was working as a Fellow. Moreover, I believe that much of the substantive public policy literature would be useful for Congressional policy development--what is necessary is a research brokerage function that would communicate Congressional information needs to the academic community and academic policy research to the Congressional information network of committees, members, and the support agencies of the Office of Technology Assessment and the Congressional Research Service.

On returning home, I came upon two articles in the two most recent issues of the AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW that I read with sharper interest because they focused on the dynamics of political and Congressional change-- a characteristic of Congress that I believe to be of great importance. An article in the recent CONGRESS AND THE PRESIDENCY is similar to a research project I sketched out while waiting for an appointment in a member's office; I had made it a habit of obtaining copies of recent newsletters. I was particularly captured by the topical and thoughtful newsletters written by Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN) covering a wide range of policy issues. It struck me that, having never seen an analysis of legislators' communication to their constituents, it would be useful to do a content analysis of Rep. Hamilton's (and other members') newsletters. I waited too long--the recent CONGRESS AND THE PRESIDENCY contains an analysis, by James S. Fleming, of the newsletters of former Rep. Barber Constable (R-NY).

Suggested Research Topics
From my public policy perspective, and based on my experiences as a Congressional Fellow, I suggest the following research topics as important ones for understanding the current Congressional environment:

Renewed Commitment to Teaching

Because I am a college professor with teaching responsibilities, I quietly observed Congressional staffers (and Members) as former college students, asking myself two questions:

Typical Staff Career Paths

While I believe college education is, and should be, more than employment preparation, political scientists need to recognize the entry paths followed by many staffers in gaining their Congressional positions. A typical staff career starts with an internship or a clerical position, followed by a legislative assistant or press secretary position in the same office, usually because the staffer has "good political connections" due to campaign work or previous contacts. A second or third legislative position in other offices then qualifies the staffer as an insider who might become a legislative director or administrative assistant. Ultimately the staffer may move to a subcommittee when his/her "boss" becomes a subcommittee chair or ranking member. Staffers, then, learn about their positions through socialization of Congressional norms and practices.

I heard Rep. Charlie Steinholm (D-Texas) tell how he had hired a very bright recent college graduate on his staff. After about six weeks, Congressman Steinholm sent the new staffer back to the district to learn about everyday life. Upon his return, the Congressman asked him what he had learned and the younger staffer replied: "I learned that there are a lot of decisions made up here that shouldn't be being made by people in their 20s."

Staff Education Needs
Seldom have staffers taken college courses to prepare them, nor have they had non-Congressional experience in a business or research organization. Given the norms of the busy Congressional environment, I submit that once they become staffers our former students are simply too busy to learn analytical skills, to appreciate the historical development of our political institutions, or to recognize the interrelatedness of "their issue" with other policy problems facing the United States.

Political science professors, and faculty in related disciplines, need to incorporate more diligently these future needs of our students into our approach to teaching political science. I suggest that three areas need to be given more attention in political science undergraduate curricula: information gathering and writing, substantive policy knowledge, and preparation for working in an organization.

Because Congress is constantly in a state of information overload, and despite being largely an oral culture, information gathering and writing are critical skills. Students, as future staffers, need to develop information gathering and writing skills. They need to become comfortable with dealing with rather ill-defined problems and quickly devising a plan for obtaining current, useful information about that problem. In response to the question, "What do you look for in hiring a staffer?" I heard one House member reply: "Besides good work habits and good character, I look for a person who can make a problem manageable. Yes, one problem is often related to another but if you are going to try to address a problem legislatively you must be able to define it. "

Likewise, students need to develop a variety of writing purposes and styles and have the confidence to go beyond the typical boilerplate press release or constituent letter. In part because writing in the Congressional environment is less frequent and less voluminous than in academic circles, it is critically important that it be done well and effectively. Two-page summaries of bills and policy issues need to be accurate, crisp, and insightful. Similarly, the volume of constituent mail requires that staffers respond quickly and effectively.

While it is impossible to fully prepare students for the substantive policy issues they will face in the future, we must be more effective in teaching students about the complexity, yet manageability, of policy issues such as those they will confront as Congressional staffers. The typical political science undergraduate has a much greater exposure to Congressional campaigns and elections than to Congressional policy-making and policy analysis. I suspect that this uneven collegiate preparation contributes to staffers' sense that Congress is a campaign and re-election institution.

Finally, because Congress is a large-scale organization, effective staffers are individuals who have a sense of organizational history and procedures and develop an ear for organizational intelligence. They need to learn how to be team players but also how to gain credit and recognition for their work. Congressional staff work involves interacting with groups of other staffers, interest group representatives, and constituents. Given the wide variety in member offices and committees, students need to be aware of the importance of learning organizational histories and cultures.

The Congressional Fellows experience provided a rewarding professional opportunity and a well-placed vantage point from which to view Congress. While I did learn a great deal about the organization and operation of Congress, and I did gain a lot of research ideas, the most lasting impact of my ten months on the Hill might well be a renewed commitment to teaching students and citizens about Congress. Political scientists need to find ways to communicate to students, as well as staffers and members, the range of citizen, staff, and member roles and responsibilities from which they may chose the most appropriate one. There is very little consideration in either academic political science, or on the Hill, of how staff and members could be more effective or how they could contribute more to improving institutional performance. We need to communicate more effectively--to students, staffers, members, and citizens--what Congress does, how and why it does it, and how Congress can more responsibly and responsively address pressing policy problems.

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