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Hill climbers.

It's been a terrible six months--months of religiously reading the classifieds in Roll Call and explaining to congressional office managers how your political science major, combined with that volunteer campaign work last fall, uniquely qualify you to draft legislation. You'll take any Capitol Hill job, anything at all; even answering phones for the distinguished freshman from DeFuniak Springs, Florida, would be something. After all, Lyndon Johnson first came to Washington as a secretary, and where do you think George Stephanopoulos cut his teeth? On "Good Morning, America"? He started out on the Hill, too.

Before you get carried away with visions of tete-a-tete cloakroom sessions with Mitchell and Foley, consider what you're up against. Last year, embarrassed by rubber checks and a House Post Office that gave away stamps but charged for cocaine, incumbents made a solemn vow: Hey, we'll cut the staff. Senators Boren and Domenici think 15 to 25 percent sounds about right. Meanwhile, there are 20,000 other staffers competing for power in 535 personal offices and endlessly balkanized committees and subcommittees--266 in all.

This means Hill climbing is getting a bit tougher. With some jobs disappearing, good fortune and friendships--always important in building political careers--are especially critical. What's less apparent but more important for government is what successful Hill staffers do after they've reached the top. Every culture has its archetypes, and the young tend to follow well-traveled paths.

Take Robert Koch, who was House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt's administrative assistant (AA)--one of the plummest of plum jobs--until last year, when he left to become a lobbyist for The Wine Institute. With all due respect to Koch, his trajectory had more than a little to do with good luck. Koch, an aspiring political operative, was just out of college in 1983 when a young congressman named Tony Coehlo needed a driver; Koch's father knew Coehlo, so Koch got the job. "I knew the city, I had a clean driving record, and I could find the cheapest gas in town," Koch says. Coehlo, then chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), slowly gave Koch more to do--handling travel, scheduling, that sort of thing. When Coehlo ran for majority whip in 1986, Koch managed his campaign. When Coehlo won, Koch, at 26, became his AA. Coehlo would resign in 1989, and Gephardt picked up a lot of his alumni, including Koch. "On the Hill, you sit down and figure out who the real members are if you want to climb," says Koch (who, incidentally, married George Bush's daughter last year).

And there's Mike House, for example, who spent eight years with Senator Howell Heflin, then found himself at age 40 with three kids approaching college age and decided to move into lobbying. "I knew that if I was going to go out, I had to do it then," says House, who is now a partner with Hogan & Hartson. (Heflin, by the way, is an ardent opponent of legislation that would make it harder for consumers to sue manufacturers; in a Washington twist, one of House's first clients when he left the Hill was a manufacturers' group. "The Senator and I both get a kick out of that," House says.)

Or you could try a third path and follow in Laura Hudson's footsteps. Her name doesn't ring any bells? It shouldn't, but Hudson's spent a career making government work. An aide to Senator Bennett Johnston, Hudson quietly watches over the Commodity Supplemental Feeding Program, a small project that feeds poor pregnant women and the at-risk elderly.

Congress is full of similarly wonderful policy jobs; given the right cultural currents, there's no better place to legislate smartly and monitor what government is really up to. The unfortunate truth, though, is that what begins as public service becomes experience that's valuable in the law firm or interest group market. (Only a third of staffers stay in their jobs for longer than two years, even at the highest levels.) And in fact, many bright, ambitious Hill staffers never get to the substance of policy at all, attracted as they are to the mechanics of media politics. What we all lose in this transitory world of re-election politics, playing the press, and private expertise-peddling is having more Hudsons around.

Here's a brief tour of the bestiary of Hill animals--who rises to the top and what they do once they leave.

The politicos:

The quickest way to get a foot in the door is to come to Washington with a member you've known "since he was at 2 percent name recognition with a 5 percent margin of error," as Texas Congressman Dick Armey says. No matter how important your position in a personal office, it's probably not very important in the grand pecking order. Most staff answer constituent complaints about how this or that federal agency has screwed them; what's rarely asked is why Congress doesn't do a better job of overseeing those agencies in the first place.

Once you're on the premises, moving into the big game means you need to go after jobs with the leadership or prominent committee chairmen. "The key is who you work for and where that member is headed," says Randal Ihara, a former aide to Senator Robert Byrd. "The closer you are to the action, the better off you are."

You can't get any closer to the action than Marty Thomas, one of Gephardt's two floor assistants. She, along with Craig Hanna, Gephardt's "body man" who spends the day at the Leader's side, has a top-flight job: arranging, with the speaker's office, the legislative calendar. When the House is in session, she helps manage the bills and troubleshoots for members with conflicts when a vote is scheduled or when debate time is at a premium. She ran errands for Gephardt at the 1990 budget summit that probably cost Bush his presidency. She spends a lot of time chatting up the Republicans, checking political pulses for her boss. So how did Thomas get to hang out with the cast of the evening news? Through Tom O'Donnell, Gephardt's chief of staff, whom Thomas had worked for at the DCCC in 1988. Thomas, by the way, just turned 30.

The DCCC put her in the mix of people who get to know members at their most vulnerable: re-election time. Another key Gephardt staffer, communications director Laura Nichols, also came from the DCCC. "The committees expose you to the right people and to the dynamics of the districts and the states," says Rob Engel, the DCCC's 1992 political director. "That kind of experience is at a premium because if you understand a district, you understand a member." In fact, of the 10 members of the DCCC's 1992 top political staff, nine landed great jobs after the election, ranging from Al Gore's office to Robert Reich's to AA jobs on the Hill.

A Ph.D. and longtime Democratic strategist, O'Donnell is a political bigfoot who, according to one observer, "is absolutely tuned in--all day, every day. He knows the score, the players, the fight. That's the only way to make it at that level." While O'Donnell and his people are top drawer, the downside of putting too much stock in campaign experience is that governing can get confused with campaigning. The fun of running for office--the focus groups, the polling, the negative research--is only tangentially connected to, say, passing national health insurance or confronting deficit spending. "Politics is fun," says one Clinton campaign alumnus who has also worked on the Hill. "Government isn't."

Communications wizards:

You could try the flashiest segment of the political job market: press and communications. The days when press secretaries would sit around and just return reporters' phone calls left the capital with Spiro Agnew. In 1970, 54 House offices had a press secretary; by 1986, 226 did. Now, all but a handful have designated press people. In the Senate, where members have a larger stage on which to strut and fret, three-person press offices aren't unheard of

Because media relations jobs are high profile, reporters (who are often similarly generalist in outlook and mostly interested in handicapping the political game) tend to view them as powerful positions. When Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, set out to list "The Fabulous Fifty: Hill Staffers with the Real Power," spin control was a factor along with knowledge, access, and muscle. Twenty percent of the staffers who made the subjective list had explicit press or political positions; 35 percent were noted for their expertise at spin.

"More and more members of Congress, and virtually all senators, are creating press departments because they recognize the connection between their free media and their re-election prospects," says David Dreyer, who started as an unpaid House intern, became Gary Hart's legislative director and worked for Coehlo and Gephardt before becoming Clinton's White House director of communications planning. "And you have more and more speechwriters vying to win a scrap of attention on the news or C-SPAN."

In the best cases, communications operations market policy to sell a bill or a candidate with a coherent "message"; it's where the details of governance meet the political world. "Communications--speechwriting, travel, and spinning local and national reporters--gives you a lot of access to the member, and that's one way of feeling powerful," says a former staffer.

But press skills divorced from conviction are transferable; so transferable that, as in one recent case, people who worked in Harris Wofford's insurgent Democratic Senate campaign one season turned up doing press for the GOP the next. The preoccupation with public relations is much larger than politics, of course: This spring, Newt Gingrich's office was hunting for a mid-level staff person and interviewed six applicants. "And, you know, four out of those six had been communications majors in college," says Dan Meyer, Gingrich's chief of staff. "I was amazed that so many of them had that kind of thing in their backgrounds. Colleges used to teach history."

One rising Hill communications staffer is Laura Quinn, a veteran of policy shops and presidential campaigns who is now with Senator Jay Rockefeller. Quinn's resume is a tour through the Democratic party of the eighties: She's worked for the Brookings Institution, Tom Bradley, Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson, Joe Biden, and Carl Levin. "She has it all," says one Senate Democratic staffer. For younger operatives whose interests aren't as focused, the call of the hustings can box them in. "A lot of young people get hooked on the campaign stuff and can't get off it," says Quinn. That's one reason for the dizzyingly high turnover rate on the Hill; the humming energy of campaigns quickly evaporates if your boss isn't on the media make.

The experts:

Don't want to chat up reporters or shill for a member who's chiefly interested in pushing his "re-elect" (Hillspeak for winning electoral margin) up above 60 percent? Well, somebody's got to be back writing tax laws and funding Head Start. While many staffers are lawyers or academics who want to spend a few years doing something other than practicing or researching, there is a professional level. Like Laura Hudson, these longer term staffers, usually a step older, have learned the arcania of a particular policy area. There's Karen Nelson, for example, whom you've probably never heard of, but who, according to The Almanac of the Unelected, knows more about Medicaid than anybody else in Washington. She has the decidedly unglamorous title of staff director of the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, but anything affecting Medicaid comes through that subcommittee.

Even among experts and committee staff, Hudson and Nelson are exceptions that prove this cultural rule: "Hill jobs are dead ends unless you want to be a Hillbilly for the rest of your life," says Tom Korologos, a veteran Republican lobbyist. "This is a company town, and you punch as many tickets as possible." But what permanent Washingtonians understand as automatic ticket-punching can be a haymaker to the work of government, especially when so many staffers keep their time on the Hill short.

When The Wall Street Journal's Jeffrey H. Bimbaum checked back in 1990 on staffers who had worked on the 1986 tax reform act, he found half of them lobbying. Of 170 former key congressional staffers tracked this spring by National Journal's CongressDaily/A.M., 115 have moved to the administration (many following bosses like Gore, Lloyd Bentsen, Leon Panetta, and Mike Espy); the bulk of the rest-50 in all--left for lobbying or consulting jobs.

What moves many of the best and brightest staffers to give up their work and cross the line to private interests? For one thing, Capitol Hill, even more than the rest of politics, is driven by youth. If you come to Congress shortly after finishing school or a campaign, you grow older, and over the years, family obligations mount. (Still, these guys aren't doing poorly financially: In the House, personal staffers can make up to $105,000, and committee staff can go to $120,000; in the Senate, the ceiling is upwards of $130,000.) But faced with the prospect of paying college tuitions (as Mike House was) and with maintaining an upscale Washington life, some staffers find the possibility of going downtown alluring. Restrictions are lax; at the moment, the people at the very top who leave have just a one-year moratorium on lobbying their old offices.

If you've spent five or 10 years with a committee or a high profile member--which is thought to be about average for this track--you naturally form what this magazine has long called "survival networks" of lobbyists, staffers, and politicians. So you see someone like Robert Leonard, the highly respected chief counsel and staff director of the House Ways and Means Committee, leave this year to practice law and lobby in a city he got to know in his 18 years with the committee, the last 11 at Rosentowski's side. He's joined forces with Tom Ryan, a former staffer with the House Energy and Commerce committee. As the health care interests ponder the coming war over a national health plan, such firms, with their deep understandings of how the institution works, won't be begging for work.

The problem with the revolving door, and with survival networks generally, is that government is already keenly responsive to concentrated interests. Put a familiar face on the concentrated interests--a former staffer, a guy you used to know over at the campaign committee or from Energy and Commerce--and thinking out a vote may be a lost cause. "Taxpayers are paying for these guys to learn the ropes and do the apprenticeships that they then go out and sell," says Pamela Gilbert, director of Ralph Nader's Congress Watch. "They shouldn't get in the door first because of the money they contribute or past relationships while everybody else has to sit in the waiting room."

The Duberstein Group is a prototypical case: Kenneth Duberstein, its president, was Reagan's last chief of staff and guided the nominations of David Souter and Clarence Thomas through the Senate. Duberstein has two associates from the Democratic camp: Michael Berman, who advised Carol Browner on her confirmation as director of the EPA, and Steve Champlin, the former executive director of the House Democratic Caucus. If you were an interest that needed to navigate Washington, who better to go to for a map to the capital's folkways?

So how will this latest era of congressional reform affect Hill climbing? The folks who answer the mail are in the clear, and it's unlikely that the top political and press operatives will suffer in even the most Bastille-like of revolutions. A few years ago, for example, a junior Democratic senator found out that Howard Metzenbaum had held up one of the younger man's bills. Fuming, he confronted the ancient Ohio senator. "Why did you put a hold on this?" the younger senator demanded. Metzenbaum looked at his colleague blankly. "My staff has the power to do that," Metzenbaum said, walking away. "How else do you expect me to keep up with anything?" While such care-and-feeding staffs are probably secure, the General Accounting Office, which does the lion's share of oversight, is on the block as well, though its staff has grown at one-tenth the rate of personal and committee staffs since the seventies. Some cuts came this winter when the House killed its select committees, which were staffed by the kinds of older, substantive professionals whom we actually need more of.

As Clinton tries to control lobbyists and negotiate the congressional shoals, the things that hamstring government in general are the things that the Hill culture implicitly and explicitly encourages. If you're on the inside, even with the freshman from DeFuniak Springs, your instinct is to do what it takes for you to get ahead--and that's what's got the rest of us worried.
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Title Annotation:congressional staff members
Author:Meacham, Jon
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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