from the valley to the hill (part 3)

I held my breath as the Chief of Staff said the following: “Do you remember how I told you I would call you if we had any other openings?  Well, we have another opening for Legislative Assistant.  We would like to offer you a job if you are interested.”

“Yes, I accept!” I exclaimed with excitement.  I jotted down some additional information from him, and then hung up the phone.

I sat there in stunned silence for a few minutes, reveling in what had just happened.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was officially going to work on Capitol Hill!   Gratitude and amazement were the emotions I felt in that moment.

A few weeks later, with some sadness, I said goodbye to my CWA family and especially my boss who taught me everything I knew, and headed up the Hill for my first day on the job.

The first day of my new job I showed up early, wearing my best suit.  I said hello to the receptionist and then headed to my office cubicle.  I noticed how tiny the “ledge shop” (short for Legislative Shop, what some people call it) really was.  Offices on the “House side” are quite small.

I sat behind my desk with an open computer just blinking at me.  It occurred to me that I had no idea what to do.  When my direct boss arrived I went right in to see him.  I needed to be trained!

“Good morning!” I began with a smile.  “Great to see you!”  We made small talk for a few moments, until I just couldn’t stand it anymore, until I sheepishly admitted, “So….how do I be a Legislative Assistant?”

He proceeded to tell me that the Legislative Assistant, or LA, was charged with keeping our Congresswoman up to speed on all the areas of legislation we were responsible for, which included our recommendations on how she should vote on bills or amendments that came up for a vote on the House floor.  In addition, I needed to write floor speeches, respond to constituents, and meet with lobbyists as well as folks from her home district.

“It’s sink or swim around here,” he said with a wink.  Then he added, “Don’t worry.  You’ll be fine.”

I went back to my desk and looked at the clock.  My official “training” had lasted only 25 minutes.

I got to work!

Within the first few days I noticed that nobody micro-managed me or checked in on anything I was doing.  The leadership just trusted the staff and everybody did their own thing.  Within the first few weeks I wrote a floor speech for the Congresswoman that she read on the House floor without any changes.  She was so impressed with the speech that she took me out to the House Dining Room for lunch to celebrate.  “I never read floor speeches without major edits.  Keep up the good work Heather!” was basically what she said to me. This was awesome because she was a really impressive person. She eventually went on after Congress to found an organization called Shared Hope International whose mission it is to rescue children from sex trafficking (www.sharedhope.org).

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Within the first few months, I also learned several other things about working on the Hill.  Here are just a few of them:

  • It wasn’t as “fancy” and “professional” as I had imagined.  Sure, everyone wore suits and worked hard, but their attitude and demeanor was much more laid-back and chill than I would’ve thought.   Our office was a lot like a family, with love and affection between all of us, and with respect and admiration for our boss.  What seemed so formal on the outside was quite laid back and informal on the inside.  There was a lot of joking and carrying on about all kinds of stuff.  Some of the ladies and I would discuss our crushes on various members of Congress, or gossiped about some of the odd things that Members would do.  For example, with the influx of the 1994 Members, there were several of them who would sleep in their offices every night just to save “taxpayer dollars.”  Apparently, one Member who slept in his office was seen walking through the Halls of Power one morning in his bathrobe after his shower.  Eww.
  • Working on the Hill is 90% grunt work.  Most of the time I was behind a desk, doing regular desk work like going through my huge pile of mail, writing letters to constituents, attempting to keep up to speed on my “issues” (legislative portfolio), attending numerous meetings, trying to figure out how to advise my Member on how to vote, and keeping up with the House floor and what they were doing.  Oh, and back then staffers mostly dealt with snail mail and the phone rather than email, so I was constantly writing letters and making calls to the many constituents who wrote in to voice their concerns or approval to my Congresswoman.  And somehow those black helicopter/implanted chip people found me at my new job and I had to take calls from them too.   🙂
  • Working on the Hill 10% glory.  A small portion of my job that was truly fun.  For example, occasionally I would I would spot a movie star walking through the Halls or at one of the many evening receptions.  I can neither confirm or deny that I once rode an elevator with Ben Affleck, saw Harrison Ford sing Happy Birthday to a staffer two feet away from me, got within five feet of Kelly Preston and just stared at her, got within 20 feet of Hugh Jackman and just stared at him, and met Christian/famous singer Steven Curtis Chapman, who performed a concert for a small group of Members and staff.  I can also state “for the record” that I once played softball with Vice President Joe Biden (he was a Senator back then).  He actually hit quite well and was a super nice and friendly guy.  Those were the fun moments of life on the Hill!
  • The other “glory” aspect is that you feel like you have some level of authority and influence to get things done and make a real difference!  I will talk about that more in my next and final post.
  • Lastly, faith is alive and well on Capitol Hill.  Many of the members and their staff are strong Evangelical Christians and/or Catholics.  I’m sure other faiths are represented as well.  These Members along with their staff have a strong faith that drives them to make meaningful policy changes for our country.

Several months later, my Congresswoman ran for a Senate seat in her state and lost, so I was again out of job. You have no idea what it is like on election night watching TV wondering if you are about to lose your job. Our office family had to go our separate ways .

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Because I had some free time I decided to finish my Masters Degree.  Due to the recommendation of a friend (remember my first post about rule number one — “who you know?”) I was able to get an internship with a Senator’s office.  It felt like a step back for me to go from Legislative Assistant to part-time intern, but I thought that one foot in the door was better than no foot at all. Very soon after I accepted a job as a Legislative Correspondent, which is the position just below LA.  Again, it was a step down, but I attacked the job with gusto.  Although Legislative Correspondent was a good place to start, I didn’t want to end up there permanently so I had an “off the record” conversation with another staffer.  I told her of my desire to become a LA for this particular Senator, and I was surprised at her honesty.  She told me that I didn’t not want to work for this office because “the good legislative ideas get “torpedoed” by the leadership, the Chief of staff is strange, and the Senator calls his wife from the Senate floor and asks her he should vote!!”

“Wait,” I asked.  “I thought that the Senator’s staff was supposed to advise him on how to vote?”  She said “yes, they do but he calls his wife as he heads down to the Senate floor.  His wife tells him how to vote!”

Wow!!

“You don’t want to work here, Heather.”  She said candidly.

Now I was at a crossroads in my career.  Stay in a “safe place” and continue on with this Senator whom I most likely would not be able to work with nor respect.  Or take a risk and venture out with another member of Congress?

Stay tuned for the conclusion of From the Valley to the Hill. 

 

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