Learning the Rules of the Game

Learning the Rules of the Game
Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks assumes the ready position at the 2017 Congressional Baseball Game. Source

If I asked you to join my baseball game, but you'd never played and didn't know the rules, you might find the experience a little frustrating.

And democracy can be a bit like this, can't it? We're asked to participate – a healthy democracy actually needs us to participate – given few tools to do that, and are often left frustrated by how government functions (or doesn't).

So let's learn up one easily overlooked piece of how government works: Congressional offices. Before you think this is SnoozeCon2024, it's useful to remember that Congress is the biggest legislature in the U.S. and the most powerful legislature in the world.

Everyone who can vote has three voices in Congress: a House Representative (Rep) and two Senators. Knowing how they organize their D.C. offices is like knowing how a baseball field is laid out: if you don't understand it, it looks like a random, if lovely series of lines and curves; if you do understand it, you can work those lines and curves to your team's advantage.

When you call your Senator/Rep, the person on the horn is likely a Staff Assistant. They are often the youngest in the office and make the least. And they rarely have any say in shaping the policy positions their boss takes. Getting angry at them is like getting angry at a supermarket cashier about the price of bananas.

When you get an email from your legislator, it's likely penned by a Legislative Correspondent (LC). They're one notch up the food chain from Staff Assistants and spend most of their day reading, sorting, and responding to mountains of incoming mail.

If we've got a meeting with a staff assistant or LC, it could be a sign our issue isn't an office priority. We can make an ask of them, but they probably don't have too much visibility into what the boss will/won't do.

Staff assistants and LCs are like flight attendants: they don't set policy, but they have to contend with the public's fury over it. Flight attendants and staffers do choose to work for their boss, but they don't choose to get abused. So to quote Henry James, "Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, the third is to be kind."

Then there's the hub of the office, the legislative staff. They come in a few flavors: the most common is Legislative Assistant (LA), and true to their title, their job is to assist the big boss on legislative issues. More junior than LAs are Legislative Aides, more senior would be Policy Advisor.

Ideally the leg staff are the hub of the office. But increasingly, the communications staff are the office's nerve center.

Just as the meaning of clam chowder varies from region to region, the meaning of these titles vary from office to office. One office's Leg Aide could have the same powers as another's LA. Some offices only have LAs, no Policy Advisors.

Friendly reminder to Manhattan and Rhode Island clam chowders: you hold not one candle to New England.

Legislative Director (LD) is a senior staffer near the top of the pecking order. Typically, LDs drive the legislative direction of the office; they often have a good sense of the boss' core priorities, how individual issues play both with constituents and party leadership, and work to balance competing priorities across different leg staff portfolios.

If the Senator/Rep is like the company president, the Chief of Staff is the CEO. They manage the big picture objectives, know where their boss stands with party leadership, and often give the final blessing before something gets to the top banana's desk.

The best Chiefs are boss whispers: they can read the member's mood, know what battles to fight, what to let go. For some Chiefs, their word is as good as the legislator's. If we're meeting with an LA, LD, or Chief, good chance they've got some sway on our issue and can give us a sense of what's possible.

While it might appear strategic to leapfrog over leg staff and go to the LD or Chief, there's a good chance they will redirect you back to leg staff, who might be prickly you undercut them, which gets you off on the wrong foot. Good to start with the designated leg staffer.

Understanding how staff are organized, who has the power to do what, is invaluable to knowing what we can ask of the staffer we're meeting with. I'd take a staff meeting over a member meeting any day. Staff do the bulk of the work - and if they like us, they'll put their back into our issue - before passing the baton to the boss to, ideally, take it across the finish line.

Or as former Senator Tom Harkin put it: “A United States Senator is a constitutional impediment to the smooth functioning of staff.”

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