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?

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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.