The Leahy Loyalist

“I’m a little bit of an anomaly on the Hill,” says J.P. Dowd.

This illustration can only be used with the Nora Caplan-Bricker piece that originally ran in the 2/14/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
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Feb. 13, 2015, midnight

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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