During the Placement process last September and October, we learned that every office in Congress is a little bit different, so it can feel a bit like there are 535 small businesses squeezed into six buildings. We did, however, learn that there are some similarities in titles and structures, which is helpful to understand when contacting an office. Several people have requested that I devote some space to explaining who is who in an office, and the time has come. With a little luck, the flow chart will be visible as well.
After the SENATOR, who is obviously the top of the heap, comes the CHIEF OF STAFF, who is the power behind the Senator. I remember that when I became Department Chair, our super-competent office coordinator sometimes worked with me on a “need to know” basis. I really didn’t need to know all the details and all of the background on the various aspects of her job. I trusted her to be outstanding at her job while I worked hard at my own. The Senator has so much going on focused outside the office that he or she desperately needs a good chief of staff to keep things running internally.
The Chief of Staff supervises the major actions of the office, which are Policy/Legislative Affairs, the Press Shop, and Communications. Yes, I know there are four branches on the flow chart. Stay with me. I’ll try to go from simplest to most complex, so my part comes last.
Scheduling is possibly the most nerve-wracking job of the lot, since it is the job of the scheduler to keep track of the Senator and try to get him or her to the right place at the right time. I had never before understood that Outlook could work in smaller blocks than 30 minutes, but busy Senators are often double- and triple-booked with time carved into blocks of five or 10 minutes. The Senator may be simultaneously scheduled for several meetings, need to give testimony in a hearing, and be on call in case Roll Call votes come up for which the Senator must show up on the Senate Floor in person. The SCHEDULER has an especially challenging time prying the Senator out of meetings with constituents, since our Senator absolutely loves to meet with people and chat with them. There are three folks in our scheduling office, who take care of all these issues, also deal with the Chief of Staff’s schedule, and try to make sure that in the midst of the chaos, that the staff also gets a little time with the Senator.
I’ve grouped most of the Communications function under the office manager, although I’m really thinking of phones and the mail. The OFFICE MANAGER oversees these forms of communications as well as the nuts and bolts of running a Senate office. The MAIL is a pretty mammoth undertaking since every time a constituent writes a letter or an email to the Senator, he or she gets a response that comes from our mail shop. Sending constituent mail also involves the Frank, which uses the Senator’s signature in place of buying postage. There are strict rules for using the Frank to prevent its abuse, so the Office Manager keeps an eye on that. The Office Manager also oversees the FRONT OFFICE STAFF, who greet visitors coming for meetings and answer the phones. Some people who call Congressional Offices are pretty unhappy and on occasion vent their frustrations on the staff, but I have never once seen any of the Front Office Staff be anything but relentlessly polite and helpful. They are the unsung heroes of the office. Our Office Manager is the amazingly competent woman who gave me the introduction to the office, set up my credentials, and ordered my business cards. She’s also the person who forwards the information about closures due to weather or road closures due to events or protests. Handing out Inauguration tickets was also one of her jobs.
I don’t exactly know where the COMPUTER GUY fits in, so I left him off the chart, but we couldn’t get along without our tech guy setting up computers and Blackberrys as well as trouble-shooting electronics.
The Press Shop handles communication with the media. I’m not quite sure of the titles here, but I figure PRESS SECRETARY is close enough to explain the head honcho of this area. The Press folks work with the Chief of Staff to identify important accomplishments and issues that the national public or the state constituents should know about. The other morning, I was thrilled to be listening to NPR and suddenly hear Senator Bennet giving an interview about immigration. That was set up by the Press people in our office.
The final area is Policy, where I work, and there are a few more layers here. Most offices have a LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR, or LD, who helps set the policy priorities for the office, often in partnership with the Chief of Staff. The LD has primary responsibility for watching the Floor (ie. The action on the Senate Floor) and for keeping everyone informed of what upcoming action is expected.
Below the LD are the LEGISLATIVE ASSISTANTS, or LA’s. This is where the myriad of policy areas get distributed among different people. In our office, one LA does healthcare, one does banking and finance, one does energy/environment/land, one does immigration and guns, and the last is sometimes called the et cetera LA, because he does everything else. Sometimes a perfect storm occurs and one LA gets slammed with crazy amounts of action. That is currently happening to our immigration LA since Senator Bennet has been extremely active in the immigration discussions, gun control is a hot issue, and the Senate will address the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that they passed in the last Congress but did not get taken up in the House. Since it is a new Congress, the act must be passed a second time.
In some offices, the next group is called Legislative Correspondents, or LC’s, since they each work closely with a specific LA and often handle the mail that needs to be sent surrounding a certain set of issues. In our office, those folks are given the title, LEGISLATIVE AIDES, and in addition to the mail, our folks each have their own portfolio of policy issues that is a little smaller than the broad scope of an LA. One may work on agriculture and another may work on education. These are usually the newer policy folks in the office, and this position allows people to get their feet wet and learn the ropes of policy. They are still the experts in their policy areas, their scope is simply a bit narrower. When talking with my fellow Fellows, I usually refer to these people as LC’s because it seems that that term is the one that maps best from office to office.
FELLOWS and DETAILEES fall somewhere in between the LA’s and the LC’s. Each of us brings an external body of expertise to the office that allows us to contribute significantly once we get up to speed on how Congress works. Military Fellows are an invaluable resource for members of the Armed Services committee, and Detailees from other government agencies may provide expertise from the Department of State or from the Department of Energy. We spend between several months and a year in the office and then take our experiences away to shape old or new jobs. The expectation is that after we have gotten some experience, that Fellows will function similar to LA’s, which provides additional policy depth and bandwidth for an office. (It seems that I’m never asked if I have time, I’m always asked if I have bandwidth.)
Since Senator Bennet has not even completed his first term in office, our group is still somewhat new to the concept of Fellows. Before I placed, it had been suggested to me that there is an advantage in being in an office that has never had a Fellow because I wouldn’t be compared to anyone else, and I could shape the position to suit my own strengths. Our office currently has three Fellows, all female!, all in different programs, and each working with a different LA in a different area. One Fellow is key to our healthcare policy, one Fellow recently came on board to help out with immigration, and I’m working on the broad spectrum of energy, environment, natural resources, and cybersecurity, which I picked up with the etc. LA, since I have an interest in the area.
The INTERNS are usually college-age students who come for a semester to get an unpaid experience in a Congressional office. I believe their job description is something like, “Do whatever is asked of you.” They are critical contributors to getting the mail out, although the letters they write, along with the letters written by the LC’s are always proofed by the LA’s before being sent out. The interns learn to give tours of the Capitol and perform that service for our constituents. Filling in for the Front Office staff is another important function, and each intern is also assigned to an LA/LC pair who uses the intern for support on projects. I had a data crunching project I needed to work on recently, and I particularly enjoyed working with our ultra-competent intern, since it got me a little chance to indulge my college professor instincts. I’m determined that I’m going to turn this political science major into a data nerd!
Some people are hired in from outside, but some people also work to climb the ladder from inside the office. The staff hasn’t changed significantly since I arrived in October, but that may simply be an unusual period of stability. My understanding is that the approximate progression of promotions would be as follows:
Intern -> Front Office -> Scheduling assistant -> Legislative Aide/ (LC) -> Legislative Assistant (LA) -> Legislative Director (LD) -> Chief of Staff
Apparently, since the Chiefs of Staffs know the operations so intimately, they often end up running for office as well.
There is also an extensive State staff network, but I haven’t worked that out yet, so you’ll have to wait for another post.