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.

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.