I promised myself yesterday that I wouldn’t go home after work without having thought of something to write a post about. Naturally, I thought of a couple ideas throughout the day and promptly forgot them all almost immediately. But now that I look back on what I’ve done so far this week, I think the thing I’ve noticed most is just how true the saying is, that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know (or, as Chris Matthews would argue, who you get to know.) I always knew this was true, but noticing nearly constant examples of contacts and name dropping has made me appreciate it in a way that a textbook or classroom discussion never could.
Basically, to get anything done here, you use a contact. When I need to find something out from someone, my first instinct is to look online, and then maybe call the main number of an office that might know the answer to my question. But my bosses just put in a call to *insert name here* on the staff of some representative or committee or organization. Every task has a name involved and a relationship behind it, maintained and carefully cultivated over years.
Sometimes it doesn’t seem to get the job done any better or faster – I can just as soon get a Senator’s scheduler’s e-mail by calling the main office number myself, for example. But when it comes to getting real information, like what ideas are being considered for healthcare reform and what compromises are in the works for a given bill, nothing is more important than who you know.
I really hate the whole idea of networking. If I have friends in cool jobs who may be able to help me out someday, it’s because they were my friends first, not because I’ve maintained correspondence with them in the hope that it will prove useful someday. But I know that I can avoid it all I want, but there’s no way around the fact that knowing someone is often the only way to get the job done. Whatever my aversions to it, the professional world doesn’t see it as exploitave – it’s just the way it works. And now that I think about it, when I imagine someone someday keeping my business card and sending me an occasional email, hoping to use me as a contact, I can’t imagine myself being offended. I think there would be something flattering about it, actually.
Contacts and flattery – seems to sum up success pretty nicely, doesn’t it? Not just in politics, but everywhere. Maybe someday I’ll master them both.
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Recess!

April 9, 2009

Thank you, Congress, for taking a break. There’s still plenty to do for me, but it adds up to a lot less work overall. Plus it’s a chance to get some of the mindless, long-term projects out of the way that have been on the backburner for a while. Like spreadsheets and databases…these have been the bane of my existence in the past, but with my current internship I don’t mind them. It’s probably because I know they’ll be put to good use, instead of just providing me with busywork. The atmosphere is more relaxed too – now if only I could wear jeans to work, like staffers and interns do on the Hill when Congress is out of session.

And we all have been experiencing the other defining part of this time of year…tourist season! When the city is bursting to capacity with families in FBI t-shirts and sneakers and carrying Smithsonian gift shop bags, I always feel conflicted. On the one hand, I know how lucky I am to live in a place that people come from all over the world just to see. As long as I’ve been here, that knowledge never gets old – I still think it’s so cool to go for a run past the White House or pass cherry blossom trees on my way to school.  But on the other hand, every time I have to wait in a line of people trying to figure out where to put their farecards, then jostle for a spot on a packed platform, then squeeze around strollers and suitcases to get on and off the train, and then stand in helpless frustration as some hapless family commits the cardinal DC sin of standing on the left on the Metro escalator…then, I don’t feel so enamoured with the tourists in DC.

Although I’m sure so much frustration is jacking up my risk of dying of a premature heart attack, it’s also kind of cool to have such a sense of belonging here. I absolutely love to travel and experience new places, but there’s something to be said for living somewhere long enough to really get used to the system there.

So I will try, with that knowledge and in the spirit of the holiday, to keep my exasperated sighs at a minimum when I’m stuck in the crowd this season. Happy Easter/Passover/Spring!

Transparency

April 5, 2009

A big part of the reason that I voted for Obama during the primary was his idealistic pledge to be different from all the other politicians entrenched in the Washington system. I had been in DC long enough by that point to realize that most elected officials spend more time fundraising than they do governing or legislating. We all know how exciting Obama’s promise of change really was. But while I’m impressed with his term so far, working for lobbyists has made me realize that sometimes change brings problems of its own.

Case in point: President Obama’s directive about lobbyists and the stimulus package. Right now just about every interest in the country is jockeying for some funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And that means that they’re employing lobbyists in Washington to help them keep track of funding opportunities and secure grants. Obama’s rule, in a nutshell, is that all communications from a federally registered lobbyist to the government, regarding a specific stimulus project or organization, have to be in writing.

What’s the problem? Well, first of all, it misses the point. The clients themselves have no such restriction. That means that an organization can set up meetings with government members themselves and lobby for stimulus money. Isn’t this the same thing? Obama’s rule is supposed to ensure that stimulus funds are awared on the basis of the project’s merit, but if an organization’s members can go into an office and give the exact same pitch that a lobbyist would, without having to put it in writing or post it online, how is the process any more transparent than before?

Second, there are Constitutional issues here. It’s one thing to put a limit on campaign contributions or put a ban on giving gifts to Members of Congress. I’m all for those things. But restricting the speech of a class of people sounds like the opposite of the First Amendment, doesn’t it?

There’s a good editorial about it here in the Washington Post.

Maybe I’m just becoming indoctrinated in the views of the Dark Side. But if I’ve learned anything this semester, it’s that lobbyists don’t act the way they’re depicted (and demonized) in the media. No one (at least, no one who’s not headed for jail) comes to a meeting on the Hill to advocate for a client with a check in their hand. The fact is that there are far more worthy projects out there than there is stimulus money available for them. So they hire lobbyists to go to Washington for them and convince the government of the merits of their cause. At least, until now.

Back with a Vengeance

March 24, 2009

Sorry for the lapse, everyone. I’ve wanted to write about this energy hearing that I went to for weeks now, and the story has gotten steadily more irrelevant in the meantime. So of course I’m going to post it anyway.

Before spring break, I went to a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee oversight hearing on the administration’s energy independence proposals. I got to see Energy Secretary Steven Chu testify, which was definitely cool. He came across as smart, knowledgeable, and most refreshing of all, reasonable. The best part, however, was definitely an appearance by a very belligerent Senator John McCain, who badgered Secretary Chu on the need for nuclear energy and the continued construction of a nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain. Every other Senator on the committee had spent the hearing thanking the witnesses for their testimony and celebrating their credentials and respecting their opinions. Then Senator McCain had his turn to question the witness and bam, it was like a courtroom drama film.  “Isn’t it true that…” “You said that…” “You didn’t answer my question!”

Moments like these make me feel like government is still worth watching. If you loved “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” like I did, then the real-life workings of Congress are likely to disappoint sometimes. Watching a Member give a speech to an empty chamber just so it goes on the record, or watching a Committee hearing with no Members present except the Committee Chair…these images make it seem like all the work gets done in emails and private meetings, and the traditional settings of government seem obsolete.

So I’m glad that there is at least one Senator being impolite and belligerent at an official hearing, and at least one witness who’s forced to depart from his prepared statement to respond. That’s what makes Congress worth watching.

Speaking of worth watching, if you haven’t seen “Mr. Smith,” do so at once. Consider that your link for the week.

Learning, Part II

February 27, 2009

The good news: Combing through countless articles about Congress keeps me up to date on things that matter, like the DC Voting Rights Bill (finally!) passing in the Senate.

The bad news: Sometimes you’re reminded of why people go so long without rights in the first place. In an article about the debate over the bill in the Senate, The Hill wrote:

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called the legislation “a camel nose underneath a tent flap.” Voting rights advocates, he warned, don’t want one voting Representative — they are working toward the “whole camel and the caravan” of two voting Senators.

Besides, he added, anyone who feels underrepresented can move to Maryland or Virginia.

“This is not a form of slavery. This is not taxation without representation. This is in fact a choice,” he said. “The choice to live in the District of Columbia rather than Maryland.”

This might be an extreme analogy, but doesn’t this make you wonder whether Southern politicians during the Jim Crow era used the same logic?

The bulk of my mornings at work are spent doing news searches, that classic intern task. It’s gotten a lot more high tech since the days of physically clipping articles out of newspapers. I look for articles that relate to our clients in a bunch of different online publications, from newspapers specifically about Capitol Hill to the Washington Post to blogs, and sometimes I even get a chance to go back and read, not just skim, the articles that I send out.  It’s nice to feel informed, but even nicer when I come across something interesting that I never would have found otherwise.

For example, Peter Orszag, the new director of the Office of Management and Budget, might just be my new hero. Not only did he apparently play a major role in the stimulus negotiations, not only does he sound like he might bring some intelligence to healthcare reform, but he actually reenacted one of my favorite scenes from the West Wing:

It’s an empiricism that extends to life around his spacious new office. The budget director spoke to Politico on the side of his office he refers to as “the living room.” In it, a small red sofa and two hard wooden armchairs face a marble fireplace. When Orszag arrived for his first weekend of work on a snowy January day, there were logs neatly stacked.

“It still seemed a little suspicious. So I lit a piece of paper to see if it vented,” Orszag said. The smoke went up the chimney.

“So then we lit a few logs. It was venting. It was fine,” he said. The only problem: The Secret Service had capped the building’s chimneys. Smoke alarms started going off upstairs, and the building was evacuated.

And though Orzag wasn’t publicly named as the culprit (“Smoke Linked to Attempt to Use 2nd-Floor Fireplace,” was the Washington Post’s headline the next day.), the incident remains the source of much amusement inside the White House.

“Rahm asked me to send smoke signals to the Hill,” Orszag recalled.

(All from this article at politico.com)

Fantastic. More epic tales of learning to come later this week.

Focus!

February 16, 2009

I lucked out – I work on Mondays and my office was closed for Presidents Day. It was great for me, but unfortunate for a lot of you who still had work and class. How is it that on a federal holiday, so many schools and jobs and even governments were still up and running? If a college named American University, located in Washington, DC, and ranked the most politically active campus in the country still won’t take a day off to honor Washington and Lincoln, does this holiday even have any meaning at all?

That is my rant for the week.

In other news, last Friday was an eventful day. The first round of appropriations requests were due, so we were filling out and triple checking forms until the last minute, and the stimulus passed, so we were also putting together charts for clients of who gets what. I have my doubts about whether it will be as effective as its strongest proponents say, but what drives me crazy is all the people who voted or advocated against it and are now hoping for it to fail. If you have a legitimate issue with the bill and don’t think it will work, fine. But don’t turn that vote into a giant political bet that you hope pays you dividends if the stimulus fails and allows you to say, “I knew it all along.” If people opposed it for the good of the economy, then it should also be for the good of the economy that they hope that they were wrong and that the bill is ultimately effective. 

Clearly, I lied, and this is a multi-rant week. I’m really a very calm and even-tempered person, I assure you. 

In still other news, I sometimes still feel less than fluent in the language of workplace etiquette. Some things are obvious: no facebook, no flip flops, no falling asleep at my desk. But other things are more subtle. How far in advance do I need to tell my boss that I have to leave early on a certain day? How do I sign an inter-office email? How casual is Casual Friday? What are the rules for going out to happy hour with my bosses after work? How many questions is too many, especially if they relate less to the task at hand and more to lobbying in general? 

These aren’t things I stress about, but I do wonder. It’s interesting to think that as we get closer to graduation, we begin to learn a new way to interact with the new world we’re about to enter.

From the Farm to the Hill

February 9, 2009

If I ever hear the word “stimulus” again, I think I’m going to explode. Which is unfortunate, because I have a feeling the rest of the week will hold lots more research into who gets what, how much, in what section and in what version…it’s interesting, but repetitive. The good news is that I have something new to work on to distract me: appropriations!

Approps go by another, more infamous name: earmarks. Apparently the word originated in the late 1500s when farmers would cut distinctive notches into their animals’ ears to mark them as their property (according to the India Times, of all places).  The term evolved to mean “to set aside or designate something for a particular purpose or owner.” In the political sense, it refers to specific allocations for places or programs that politicians stick into giant appropriations or authorization bills. They’re great for the politician who gets money to go to his or her district, but bad for everybody else.

But for all the noise people make about the evils of earmarks and special interests, especially during the campaign season, the truth is that it’s not nearly as shady a process as you might think. Each Senator and Representative’s office has forms available to organizations that want to try and get federal money for a project. They have to submit detailed information on their organization and their plan, including a budget that describes exactly where the money would go.  If they employ a lobbyist, they usually have to say so on the form.  A lot of offices also only accept requests from nonprofits or cities.

The whole process seems innocent enough — more like applying for a grant than engaging in backhanded deals. (Although really, earmarks are a way of circumventing a merit-based process, so they’re trying to avoid applying for grants.) But when there’s a clear pattern of a Member of Congress routinely getting earmarks into appropriations bills for certain organizations, and then lo and behold, those organizations are that Member’s biggest donors, then it doesn’t seem so innocent anymore. I’m getting the sense that each appropriations request falls somewhere on a spectrum, somewhere between nonprofit children’s hospitals and clear corruption.

Here are some links so you can decide for yourself what belongs on the latter side of the scale:

The Office of Management and Budget is the official place to go to find records of earmarks, although its information is limited for previous years.

Watchdog.net has some good information on earmarks, as well as Members and the contributions they receive.

And Crew’s “Most Corrupt Members of Congress” list is totally extreme, but kind of fun. It’s also impressive that they managed to find such evil-looking photos of the people on their list.

Forgive the cliche, but while the semester is young, I’m going to make a list of things I want to do during my internship. Better now than in May when it’s too late, right? So bear with me please. These aren’t in order of importance.

During my time at this internship, I will…

  • Get through the semester without going “Office Space” on my work computer. Seriously, me + it + slo mo + “Still” + a baseball bat + an open field would be bliss. And no, internet police, that’s not a legitimate threat.
  • Feel like I’ve made a difference. Not just by putting together a super spreadsheet, either.  I know it’s a lot to ask for an intern to make a significant contribution by doing substantive work, but hey, I can dream.
  • Really get to know everyone in the office, not just the people I interact with the most each day. Not just for a reference, but because they’re all really genuinely interesting people.
  • Learn! About lobbying, Congress, and all the specific issues that affect the firm’s clients.
  • Go to work on a full night’s sleep at least once.
  • Bring my lunch more.
  • Go with the firm’s members and clients on a visit to the Hill.
  • Change my mind about an issue that I research — especially if it crosses party lines. If I’m going to preach bipartisanship, I’d like to have my beliefs match.
  • Drink less coffee.
  • Decide whether this is something that I could do in real life someday…or if it’s something that I’d want to do.
  • No matter how tired or bored or frustrated I am with it, make every effort to enjoy my commute. I love this city and I’m lucky to be here. I don’t ever want to take living in DC for granted.

Your link for the week: PostRejects. Read only if you check PostSecret and have a sense of humor. This is to temper that last bullet point that was so annoyingly filled with bright-eyed wonder.

When I told people back home that I was going to intern for a lobbying firm, more than a few of them reacted as though I’d just announced that I’d landed a job as personal assistant to Satan.  I can’t say I blame them. Outside of the District, press about lobbying seems to cover only the sensational scandals and Jack Abramoffs of the industry. But the longer I live here and the more I learn, the more I realize that lobbying is everywhere and without it, nothing would ever get done. So I figured I’d see for myself just how evil it was on the other side.

And guess what: my job is free of scandals and smoky rooms, devoid of shady deals and cushy gifts to members of Congress.  Instead of the golfing trips and lavish meals that used to make their way into the news, we dispense information. The people I work with genuinely believe in what they advocate on behalf of their clients, and some of that work is even done pro bono. And best of all, it’s a very bipartisan place. It’s so refreshing to be reminded that there are people left in politics who really don’t care what party you belong to, and that there are still issues where we can align with what makes sense, instead of automatically falling on one side of a party line and never solving the problem.

I’ll be fair: it’s only been two weeks. I understand only a tiny corner of the immense world of lobbying, and I intend to learn as much as I can while I’m here. But so far, I’m heartened that Washington sometimes works this way, despite what we hear on the news.

Your link for the week: the Senate’s Lobbying Disclosure Act Database. You can look up your favorite evil corporation and find out just how much they’ve been spending on lobbying. A lot of them have their own in-house lobbyists, which is why the company name sometimes appears as both a client and a registrant. They’re legally required to disclose all of it.