The Thrill of the Hill

Three Washington insiders have found that working at the federal level is full of opportunity, learning, and a chance to make a difference.

During his senior year, Adam Frey recalls, most of his acquaintances were busy scouting out lucrative opportunities in investment banking or consulting. He wanted both something different and to make a difference. Today, as a legislative assistant on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Frey '98 says he's enthralled to have found just the right fit. "I'm loving it," he said in early December, five months after joining the committee. "It's everything I was hoping it would be."

The panel, headed by Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, bears one of the weightiest portfolios on Capitol Hill. Among other areas, its purview includes international treaties, foreign aid, and declarations of war. All and sundry consequently pass through its doors. As a member of the Republican majority staff, Frey has met the prime minister of India and sat in on Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's valedictory appearance before the committee last September.

Even the less eventful days are exciting-keeping up with events in the Near East and South Asia, attending administration briefings, drafting letters and legislation. "I'm enjoying the interplay, the idea of melding the political side of things and also the foreign-policy side," he says. "And being really involved in the process." In short, Adam Frey is "staff," that influential corps composed largely of twenty- and thirtysomethings who,unknown to many Americans, help run the country.

As the mechanics of governing have become more complex and time-consuming in recent decades, the role of committee employees has soared commensurately. Legislators work long days, but as the latest U.S. Congress Handbook notes, "the demands of constituents and their own related desire to be reelected means they spend most of their time on 'constituent activities.'" Hundreds of staff members fill the resulting void. They gather information, draft bills, and hash out compromises. Although members of Congress still make the final decisions, staffers are often responsible for many of the details in the final product.

When you read about closed-door budget negotiations between the House and Senate, for example, chances are that most of the people in the room are not legislators, but staffers. Their influence is such that Congressional Quarterly regularly publishes a staff directory, complete with 170 pages of capsule biographies.

For all that, staff members tend to be reticent about their own role. You'll rarely see them quoted by name in the media. Deference to their elected bosses is ingrained. True to this self-effacing mold, Frey agrees that the Foreign Relations Committee plays an important role. "But I also recognize that I've only been there for five months and I would never dare to put that much of a focus on my responsibility."

Frey finds it difficult to pinpoint the reasons behind his fascination with international affairs in general and the Middle East in particular. It probably started with the fact that he's Jewish, he says, but as he grew up in New York's Westchester County, his interests always gravitated toward history and social studies.

At Duke, he majored in public policy with a minor in political science. His first brush with Washington came after a junior-year summer internship at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank whose members regularly testify before Congress. After getting his diploma, Frey returned there as a research assistant and associate editor. At the beginning of last year, he hopped to SAIC, a Fortune 500 research and engineering company.

Just as he was settling into a job as a policy analyst in the weapons proliferation division, the committee job beckoned. Ironically, although Frey hoped to make it to the Hill at some point, he had stopped actively looking before the opportunity arose. "The old saying is when you're not looking for it is when it hits."

All else aside, it's an ideal post for someone long intrigued by the impact of domestic influences on foreign policy. And now that he's there, Frey says he could stay for some time, although he has no concrete, long-term plans.

People are often attracted to government because they want to make a difference, he says. "In many ways, you get people who are extremely committed and very passionate about what they're doing. And that, I would think, would probably breed good work."

It was late November, the presidential election still swinging tremulously in the balance. But in the vicinity of Heather Howard's White House work area, the signs of transition were already unmistakable.



Howard: former senior policy adviser to the First Lady 
Photo: © Dennis Brack 2001




Next to her West Wing cubbyhole, the office of then First Lady Hillary Clinton lay crammed with boxes destined for the still-to-be built presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas. And for Howard '90, it was time to ponder her next move in a career so far spent largely in the environs of power. Where exactly do you go after a double tour, serving both as an associate director of the president's Domestic Leadership Council and senior policy adviser to the First Lady?

"I want to relax a bit," Howard says, with a laugh. "I'd love to take some time off, but I don't want to get behind. There are going to be thousands of unemployed Democrats, so I need to find something." Hanging on the wall behind her was a picture of Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea on an elephant. Behind her as well lay a host of experiences and memories: a key role in pushing through renewal of the Violence Against Women Act; an opportunity to prep the president before his weekly radio address; the chance to party in Los Angeles with the cast of NBC's savvy, nuanced hit, The West Wing. The show features Duke's most famous fictional alumnus in the characture of Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe. Look closely on the wall behind Sam's desk and you'll spot his Duke diploma. Like a large chunk of the inside-the-Beltway population, Howard is an avid fan of the show. "People think it's pretty realistic," she says, "except that we joke that they dress better."

One of three children, she grew up north of New York City in Westchester County. Politics was standard family discussion fare; the household usually contained four or five newspapers. At Duke, classes in history and women's studies sharpened her political sensibilities. After graduating cum laude with a double-major in history and Spanish, she signed on as an aide to Congresswoman Nita M. Lowey, Democrat of New York.

After four years on Capitol Hill, Howard returned to school, getting a J.D. degree from New York University's law school. She then clerked for Federal Appellate Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey in Nashville, followed by a stint as a litigator with the Justice Department's Antitrust Division. The doors to the White House swung open last March with the help of recommendations of friends from her Hill days. With the November presidential election only eight months away and Hillary Clinton already in the thick of her Senate race, it was clear that this would be a short-term gig. But, Howard says, it was a great opportunity. She also felt sure that the Clinton administration would be active through its final year. And she was right.

With a staff of about thirty, the Domestic Policy Council is charged with developing and advancing the president's agenda on issues like gun control and health care, and promoting the well-being of children and families. That's not necessarily a simple matter. The presidency, Theodore Roosevelt famously observed a century ago, makes "a bully pulpit" for advocating change. If the concept still holds true today, the political/public-relations apparatus needed to turn aspirations into has grown exponentially more complex.

For Howard, the days were filled with memos, meetings, and "global" strategy sessions looking at what lay ahead and seeking targets of opportunity for the Clinton agenda. "You can do events, you can elevate the profile of something," she says. "You work with Congress, but you put a spotlight on an issue and that helps increase the pressure to move it." When a study last February documented the skyrocketing use of the anti-hyperactivity drug Ritalin, for example, Howard worked to help coordinate the federal response on Hillary Clinton's behalf. Five million dollars in research money was found to study Ritalin's effects on young children. The Surgeon General held a conference on the issue. The National Institute of Mental Health was put to work developing fact sheets on the drug for parents who might not otherwise know much about it. Given Hillary Clinton's long history of working on children's health issues, Howard says it was natural for the White House to ask what could be done. "The numbers

That initiative enjoyed the luxury of being confined mainly to Executive Branch agencies. More arduous was the campaign to win congressional re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, a 1994 law that combines toughened law enforcement with new safeguards for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The measure had stalled on the Hill. To boost its profile, the White House began staging events-such as a September appearance by the president at a New Mexico women's shelter-aimed at grabbing the attention of the press and public. Equally important was the behind-the-scenes lobbying effort, which entailed reminding lawmakers that the VAWA had steered $1.6 billion in federal grants back to state and local governments. In a year that will be remembered mainly for partisan gridlock, the measure passed the GOP-controlled Congress in October.

Howard counts the day that Clinton signed the bill as her most memorable in the White House. After briefing him on the legislation's content, she watched him devote his entire weekly radio address to the subject. It was the "culmination," she says, of what she had worked so hard to see accomplished.

Don't think that a White House staffer's life is a total grind, however: Howard was also invited to a West Wing set party during last summer's Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Revolving around the travails of the administration of Democratic President Josiah Bartlet, the show offers a sharply-etched fictional portrayal of government that some observers have found more realistic than the head-banging cacophony depicted on many news shows.

Howard vigorously agrees. "It shows the people who work here as basically good-hearted people who want to do the right thing and work hard with noble goals. It shows that things are more complicated than they appear. And sometimes you have to compromise, but they have the right goals in mind."

Each morning when she arrives at the office, Lisa Zeidner '00 turns on her computer, checks her e-mail, and starts writing letters to people she doesn't know. Letters to constituents eager to hear from her boss, Senator John Edwards, Democrat of North Carolina, on pending legislation. Letters to voters who are steamed about this, that, or the other and want him to know. Letters to plain folks who have poured out their hearts on the most personal of problems in a plea for help.



Zeidner: legislative correspondent for Senator John Edwards 
of North Carolina 
Photo: © Dennis Brack 2001





It's all in a day's work for Zeidner as a legislative correspondent for Edwards. More surprisingly, though, letter-writing has also become part of her post-Duke education. "I feel like in some ways I'm still in school because I soak in so much knowledge every day," she says over coffee in a Senate snack bar. Before drafting a response for Edwards' signature, Zeidner has to research the issue involved, which in her case could include anything from foreign affairs to defense to children and family matters. On a good day, she puts out ten letters; on a not-so-good day, maybe five. "Being involved in government is teaching me so much about my country," she says. "Every letter that I get is interesting."

Not that politics is altogether new to her. A pediatrician's daughter from Utica, New York, she spent much of her four years at Duke in the thickets of student government, winding up her senior year as DSG president and helping to prod for significant reforms to the university's financial-aid program.

Unsure where she was headed after last May's commencement, she had returned home to temp briefly, but soon decided it was time to find "a real job." An e-mail message from the Duke Career Center alerted her to the vacancy in Edwards' office, which fit neatly within the range of work options-law firm, nonprofit organization, Capitol Hill, lobbying -that she'd set for herself.

"My idea was that I would come to Washington," she says, "and I would see politics up close and then be able to decide if it wasn't something I was interested in being involved in long-term." Three months after joining Edwards' staff in September, she says she had no regrets. While many in the public may view Congress as an aloof, distant institution, lawmakers tend to take their mail very seriously. The average congressional office devotes 55 percent of its staff time to reading and replying to correspondence, says Congressman Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, in his recent book Congress From the Inside. "Mail means everything to congressional offices," Brown writes. "Simply put, successful members pay special attention to the mail; less successful members may not." Zeidner largely agrees. "I think that people don't realize that the letters they send in do have an effect," she says. "It definitely changes how we react."

Still, not all mail is created equal. Edwards' office received quite a few letters, for example, from people just furious that President Clinton had handed over part of Alaska to the Russians. Hadn't heard about that? Well, as Zeidner can tell you, after extensive research and a call to the State Department, it's not true. The issues of boundaries did surface during energy discussions with Russia, but there were no plans to give away part of Alaska. "The borders have not changed," she adds reassuringly. Outside of the office, Zeidner is also getting an education in the unique mores of Washington, where, to paraphrase football coach Vince Lombardi, politics isn't a sometime thing, it's "an all-the-time thing." She watched the presidential debates with friends in a bar-probably not something that would happen elsewhere. She relies on her family for life-beyond-the-Beltway reality checks. "When I went home for Thanksgiving, I realized that not everybody lives and dies for what [Al Gore adviser] Warren Christopher is doing," she says.

But Zeidner has swiftly learned something else. Not all power resides in Washington. Education, for example, remains primarily a local issue. When she gets letters on child- support problems, she has to refer the writers back to the state level where such problems are typically handled. After spending a few years on the Hill, she plans to go to law school. And after realizing how much governance occurs at the state and local level, she might then be interested in acquiring some experience there. "So maybe I'll be on the school board one day."

 Reilly writes for Newhouse News Service in Washington, D.C.


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