The most powerful person in Congress

16 Nov

…is not the person you elected to office.

You may find it hard to believe but it’s the Congressperson’s Chief of Staff. In some cases they control the vote of the Senator or Representative. In all cases they control what gets to the politician that they use to make a decision on something.Time for Politics 101.

Let’s spread it out on the table and take a look at the parts.

The Senator or Representative is busy. If they are not on the floor, they are in one of many committee meetings, or giving speeches or meeting with lobbyists. That’s the nature of the job. The elected official can come in at 7 AM and work until 10 PM and still not even get close to seeing everything. So what gets to them is filtered. By the Chief of Staff.

Welcome to Politics 101.

Members of the House of Representatives can hire up to 18 permanent employees for their congressional and district offices. The key word here is “permanent”. There’s no limit to temporary hires.

Senators, by the way, do not have a limit on the amount staff they can hire.

Here’s how the typical office is set up. We say “usually” a lot because some offices are put together differently.

Chief of Staff/Administrative Assistant
The Administrative Assistant reports directly to the member of Congress. He/she usually has overall responsibility for evaluating the political outcome of various legislative proposals and constituent requests. The Administrative Assistant is usually the person in charge of overall office operations, including the assignment of work and the supervision of key staff.

Legislative Director
Usually the staff person who oversees the legislative agenda for the office and makes recommendations regarding the pros and cons of particular issues. (Did you think the elected official reads everything?)
They usually handle one or two major issues for a particular member, or often handles the key committee assignment for a member. They  manage the Legislative Assistants and Legislative Correspondents.

Legislative Assistant
Specializes in a specific legislative field or fields and crafts and monitors legislation; devises strategy to pass specific legislation; and in a Senate office oversees the legislative correspondent working in the same legislative field.

Legislative Correspondent
In a Senate office they work in a number of specific legislative fields providing research for a Legislative Assistant while primarily writing letters to constituents concerned about issues in the specific legislative fields the he or she specializes in. In a House office, the Legislative Correspondent writes letters exclusively.

Press Secretary
Takes calls from the media, writes press releases, and acts as the spokesperson for the Member.

Staff Assistant
Answers phones and e-mail in the Member office, greets visitors, sorting mail, and provides tours of the Capitol.

Let’s talk about incoming mail and email. You might be surprised, but the Senator or Representative never sees that letter you wrote complaining about something. First, correspondence is divided into 3 stacks: those from the member’s home state, those not, and important stuff that needs to go to the Chief of Staff.

Stack one will generally get a response, supposedly from the member. Actually a staff member will dash off a quick reply and someone else will quickly look at it. If it sounds reasonable, pushes the member’s agenda or doesn’t commit him or her to a particular stand, it goes to the auto-pen machine. This machine signs the member’s name in ink and it gets sent out. Yup, never does it cross the member’s desk.

If it’s from stack two, it’s usually just filed. After all those letters are not from voter’s in his or her home state.

Stack 3 is the biggie. This is official correspondence from the home state’s Governor, Mayor, Union head or someone else of power and influence. The top of the list gets sent to the member to see and discuss with the Chief of Staff. Usually a person is assigned to research the issue raised in the letter and a synopsis page is produced and attached to the letter first.

These get a “red flag” and tracked through the system very quickly. In the end, the response is actually signed by the member, usually with a short personal note scribbled somewhere.

We know someone of moderate “importance” in Hawaii who wrote Senator Akaka three letters in a couple of years period. One was responded to with a well thought out two page reply. The others were apparently ignored.

So, from this you should understand constituent concerns are not handled by the Senator or Representative. Someone who does this job well is worth their weight in gold.

The Chief of Staff’s real power comes with presenting the member with the information they need to make a decision on a bill.

For our example – let’s use the Health Care Reform bill. 2,400 pages. 425,000 words. Outside of a few people who seriously need to get a life, no one has read all of it. A 90 page summary was circulated in Congress and that’s what most Congressional offices used. The Chief of Staff assigns people to take one section of the bill, break it down, explain it in plain English (if possible) and write a paper on the pros and cons of that section.
All of this goes to the Chief of Staff who then boils it down further, taking what he knows of where the Senator or Representative stands on various issues.

The final document is what’s discussed with the member. What the Chief of Staff puts in there is what the politician will depend on to take a final stand.

Room for skullduggery? Of course, but it rarely happens. The office people are trusted and generally with good reason.

Class dismissed.

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