I’m a little bit of an anomaly on the Hill,” says J.P. Dowd. That’s certainly an understatement. Dowd, 50, has been working for Patrick Leahy since 1986, when he joined the senator from Vermont’s re-election campaign straight out of college. After the election, Dowd moved to Washington. He served as Leahy’s top aide on a range of issues—from defense to appropriations—before becoming his legislative director, then chief of staff. Today, Leahy is the longest-serving member of the upper chamber—and there can’t be many chiefs of staff on the Hill who have as long a history with their boss as Dowd does with Leahy.
What advice might Dowd give to chiefs of staff who haven’t spent as many decades on Capitol Hill? “Always remember that other people want to get to ‘yes’ as well,” he says. “If that is the case, and in most cases it is, you have a better chance of getting to agreement.” (Nigel Buchanan)
One place where Leahy and Dowd have been seeking such agreement is on sentencing reform. Since 2013, Leahy has been working with Rand Paul on a proposal that would allow federal judges to impose sentences below the mandatory minimum in many cases. “When it comes to issues, you have to have the experience and the leadership to look beyond parties. Here was an example of a convergence of beliefs from two opposite poles of the parties. There are cases when you peel back the political parties and the large capital ‘P,’ and people have agreements on things,” Dowd says. “It’s an important bill. “¦ We’re going to try and get that through.”
Dowd is also eager to tout a system that he thinks worked better when he first arrived at the Senate: committees. “I think it would be good for more of the Senate to get back to [building] consensus by going through the committee process,” he says. Leahy is the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee (which is currently considering the sentencing-reform proposal), as well as the most senior member of the Appropriations and Agriculture committees. “It is laborious, and it takes more time” than hashing out debates on social media and talk shows, Dowd notes. “But it’s a way to have a higher chance of getting your bill successfully through the floor, and hopefully into law.”
Deciders is a recurring feature about how key players in Washington make political and policy decisions.
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