The Devil Wearing (Prada?) a Congressional Pin

I’ll let you in on a secret: I don’t particularly like politics. Right now you’re probably thinking, “How did this girl work for Congress for almost 8 months? Is she some kind of a masochist?”

I wouldn’t have thought I could stand it either. So what was the big secret of how I tolerated working for a Congressman? I’ll tell you: he was 33, was elected 2 months before I came into the office, and was from a small, poor Midwest town, and somehow was completely devoid of entitlement.

The whole time I worked on the Hill, I had an inkling that my office atmosphere was unique. It was laid back, it was genuine, the people were just normal and friendly. The Congressman was young and new and idealistic and really thought he could make a difference. He listened to people and spent literally all of his time working. When he was in Washington, he slept in his office. Seriously, he did. I’m not joking.

When the allotted time for my internship had technically finished and I still hadn’t landed a paying job, the Chief asked me to stay until I figured things out. It was my out, and I could have left the perplexing world of politics and run for the hills. But in that office I felt that I was helping someone make a difference. Even if they weren’t paying me, I felt that my volunteered time was being used for some good. And every once in a while, the things I witnessed were even more entertaining than watching Netflix in bed would have been.

I certainly didn’t agree with all of the Congressman’s politics. I agreed with a good deal of them, sure, but not everything. But even when I disagreed with his views, I could always see that he was trying to do his best for the people in his district. And that isn’t something you observe in many of our so-called representatives.

I knew this, but I didn’t truly experience proof that my office was different until I interviewed for a job in a “similar” office.  Same state, same party, so I figured the prospective new boss would be a similar kind of guy. It was with much surprise that I sat through that interview listening to questions like “How do you handle being yelled at?” and “Do you have a car? You’d need to drive the Congressman around pretty frequently.” To top it off, the job was really a combination of what two separate staffers did in my office.

The finale of the interview was the real kicker.  When it was my turn to ask the questions, I asked what qualities the office was looking for in an ideal candidate.

“Well, we really need someone who can multitask. The Congressman is really forgetful, and you’ll need to give him things four or five times to make sure he has them. For example if he needs to remember to take briefing papers before a meeting, you need to keep an ear out and make sure he doesn’t leave without them. If you go into his office and he’s left through the side door without his papers, telling me you didn’t hear him leave is not an excuse with me.”

What did he want me to do, fit the Congressman with a bell so I could always hear him coming and going? Oh sure, I was happy to listen for a door behind another door while answering phones, managing the guy’s schedule, supervising interns, picking up his laundry, driving him to the airport, oh, and sitting at the front desk to greet guests.  All while the buzzers that alert the House to upcoming votes blared like sirens in the background.

When I told the interviewer I was looking for a challenge I guess I should have clarified that I meant a challenge expanding the skills that I learned while getting my college degree, not a challenge trying to develop super-human hearing. I smiled and said “You bet” in the interview, but walked back to my own office feeling vaguely disappointed. How could that other office have been so different?

My dad reminded me that night that many entry-level jobs involve grunt work. I am certain I will find myself taking on tasks in the next couple years that I won’t love. If nothing else, the bad interview clarified for me that its both necessary and worth it to pay my my dues—but not in an industry I have no real interest in. Because then I would just be miserable. I want my hard work to mean something.

Even though I’m glad to be leaving Congress behind for an exciting new opportunity, it’s comforting to know that there is at least one person up there on the Hill who I can admire. If you’re reading this thinking a snarky “Oh really?”, then I’ve got some proof for you in the form of my favorite story from my time with Congress

Like any office, we had our share of frequent callers. For various reasons, these people decided that the best way to exercise their democratic rights was to call their representative every day and talk the ears off of those lowest on the office totem pole. It didn’t take me long to be able to pick out their numbers on the caller ID. Some of these people were rude and disgruntled, some friendly and encouraging, and some just plain odd. My favorite caller was Tommy.

On my second day of work, I answered the phone and the man on the other end said “Hi Katie!”. Assuming it was a district staffer, I clarified that I was not indeed Katie. He asked my name, and if it was my first day, and identified himself as Tommy.  When I confirmed that it was my first day, he congratulated me on the new job. And then he launched into a short soliloquy on his deeply wounded feelings on what a politician of the opposing party said on the news that day. He closed with an enthusiastic “Thanks for listening, talk to you later Emily!”

Tommy was a few eggs short of a dozen. I’m not sure exactly what his deal was, but he was disabled and lived with his mother. He was odd, but also endearing. He adored the Congressman, he knew the whole office by voice, he kept his rants between 3-5 mins, he always trusted that I truly would pass his messages along, and in no time was calling me “Ems”.  When I saw his number flash up on the caller ID, I always made a quick grab for the phone. He was positive (towards the Congressman at least), he was funny, and I always knew what I was going to get when I talked to him.

One day, Tommy was more agitated than usual on the phone. At one point, he started to break down, and said “I’m sorry, I’m having a really rough day. We lost my mom this morning.” After being assured that the office would pray for him, he regained his composure and launched into a rant about healthcare. I guess some things never change.

The whole office felt genuine sympathy for Tommy, and a few of us were discussing “Poor Tommy” when the Congressman happened to walk through. Bewildered, he asked how we had become so attached to one of the crazy callers. I explained how Tommy knew the whole office by voice, and how fervent a supporter he was, and then the Congressman had to leave for a meeting.

When the Congressman came back from the meeting, he asked for Tommy’s phone number. With that one phone call, he demonstrated in my eyes why he deserved his seat in Congress. No one would ever know about that phone call outside of the office. It wouldn’t be in the news, and no one would take a picture of it and use it to sell his image to the public. That phone call was genuine. Tommy had touched his staffers, so the Congressman reached out to him in return, on what was probably one of the worst days of his life.

The Congressman reported back that Tommy couldn’t believe it was really him on the phone, and was overwhelmed with emotion. After being consoled by the Congressman, Tommy then asked “Did the girls pass on my message from earlier?” and took full advantage his first ever opportunity to tell the Congressman his message for himself. Coming from someone who talked to Tommy 3 times a week, I know how much that phone call must have meant to him. (And of course he brought it up on our next 5 or so phone conversations).

I understand that my experiences aren’t necessarily representative of the whole of our government. But I do think that my interview with a 15-year Congressman’s Chief and my internship with a Congressman of 9 months are pretty demonstrative. Demonstrative of what? I’ll let you come to your own conclusions. In the mean time, here’s to new beginnings, new challenges, and getting a paycheck for my 40 hours a week of work!

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