The award for Worst Regularly Scheduled Meeting Time in Washington should probably go to the Obama administration's congressional affairs team.
Each Friday at 4:30 p.m., the top congressional liaisons from the Cabinet departments gather at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for a meeting with Phil Schiliro, the White House's main man on Capitol Hill, to compare notes and coordinate strategy for moving the president's agenda through Congress. The meeting time could be worse -- Schiliro told them jokingly that a Saturday time slot was available too.
Many observers have noted that the Obama administration is the most congressionally focused in recent decades, with four Cabinet secretaries, the head of the CIA, the chief of staff, the vice president and the president himself having come from the legislature. Flying under the radar, however, is the 4:30 club of former Hill staffers who have taken the congressional liaison posts sprinkled around Washington's various agency headquarters. They, too, come from the staffs of lawmakers key to Obama's legislative success or failure, and their performance will help determine the strength of the relationship between Congress and the administration.
In interviews for National Journal's Decision Makers issue, the departmental Hill liaisons discussed transitioning from working for a lawmaker to laboring in the belly of the bureaucracy, managing the relationship between the White House and the Hill, and how their experiences in Congress come into play in their new roles. "It's just as rigorous of a pace, with the added responsibility of management," said Gabriella Gomez, the Education Department's new congressional affairs chief and a former aide to House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif. "I felt like this was my time to step up and do what I could to help [Education Secretary Arne Duncan] and to help this administration move a very aggressive and progressive agenda."
The administration's appointments reflect a desire to forge immediate relationships with key members. In addition to Gomez, Brian Kennedy at the Labor Department is a former Miller staffer. Peter Kovar at the Housing and Urban Development Department worked for House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., for two decades. Frank's committee has jurisdiction over housing issues as the administration tries to fix the sector that started the economic free fall of the past two years.
At Interior, Christopher Mansour, a former aide to House Natural Resources Committee Vice Chairman Dale Kildee, D-Mich., provides a House connection for Secretary Ken Salazar, the former senator. April Boyd, former chief of staff to Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif. -- outgoing head of the key bloc of moderate House Democrats known as the New Democrat Coalition -- said her legislative affairs office at the Commerce Department is filled with people who came directly from the Hill. "We all know that when people are calling us for information, they need it right away," Boyd said. Another former New Democrat aide -- Dana Gresham, who worked for Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala. -- is the top Hill liaison at Transportation.
Former Senate staffers now serving in key liaison spots include three prior aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. -- Kennedy at Labor, Richard Verma at the State Department and Ron Weich at the Justice Department. The Defense Department's Elizabeth King worked for Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., while Chani Wiggins, the Homeland Security Department's legislative liaison, most recently was an aide to Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a key member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
"We have a Congress that's very interested in where DHS is going," Wiggins said, noting that 80 congressional committees and subcommittees have oversight power over portions of the department. "It requires just an enormous amount of constant coordination."
All of the assistant secretaries said that keeping the Hill in the know about what's going on at their departments is the key to success. "It's about communicating and having good relationships," Kennedy said. Gomez agreed: "From my prior life, I just thought it'd be nice if we had just known or been able to get our boss a heads up," she said. "It's the notifications. It's just being able to get a heads up as much as possible about things."
Another big part of the job for many agency congressional offices is dealing with constituent requests funneled to them from members. The State Department, for example, handles an average of 20,000 individual concerns per year -- from issues with passports to problems Americans are having overseas -- forwarded to Foggy Bottom from lawmakers, Verma said.
Many lawmakers have a dedicated staffer who deals only with Veterans Affairs issues -- veterans having trouble getting their medical or disability claims resolved at the VA. Joan Evans, once chief of staff to former Rep. Darlene Hooley, D-Ore., who served on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, is the Obama administration's nominee for the VA liaison job. "Being able to understand how important that constituent service is to the veterans will really make a difference," Hooley said of Evans.
The transition from the Hill to the agencies for the former congressional staffers is easy in one respect -- most have already spent years working in their policy areas. But instead of working for one member of Congress, the assistant secretaries now work not only for the president and their Cabinet secretary, but with every member of the House and Senate. "I suddenly went from having one client to having 535 clients," the Pentagon's King said. "Everyone is concerned about national security issues."
Krysta Harden, the Agriculture Department's chief liaison and a former House Agriculture Committee aide, said lawmakers contact her office about legislation on the horizon, legislation that has been passed and is being implemented, what's happening on the House and Senate floors, what's happening in committees and what members are hearing from back home. "We deal with whatever comes across a member's desk," Harden said.
Another big change is the shift to a bureaucracy that requires coordination within departments -- the secretary, the general counsel, the congressional affairs office, etc. -- and among departments, including the White House, the Office of Management and Budget and interagency councils. "On the Hill -- especially working in the leader's office -- you can come to a decision very quickly," said Verma. "Here, there is a much more collaborative decision-making process."
The Treasury Department's congressional affairs appointee, Kim Wallace, recently highlighted the difficulty facing all of the assistant secretaries when Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., used his confirmation hearings as a forum to vent complaints about how information was reaching his office from the White House. "In Washington, D.C., it's impossible to give an ironclad commitment that there won't be leaks that some of us don't know about beforehand," Wallace said. "But in terms of what goes on inside Treasury, I will do everything possible to make sure you're not surprised by what you read in the newspaper."
This article appears in the June 22, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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