Back to work: Congress edition

In which I take an occasional break from writing about the ways Congress, presidents, and federal agencies disappoint us to tell an absolutely true career story, and perhaps inadvertently pass on an insight or helpful advice.

At my first job in Congress, 2000–2001, there was a Staff Assistant. Let’s call him “Bill.”

Bill sat in the front office, answering phones and welcoming visitors, making copies, and distributing mail. Bill constantly asked for more responsibility, though — to have an issue portfolio, write constituent responses, cover hearings and committee briefings, even draft Floor speeches and legislation.

We all constantly turned down Bill’s requests for more responsibility.

At 22, he was a very recent product of a political science undergraduate program back in the district. He kept up on the latest happenings. He assiduously attended each evening reception held throughout the Capitol complex (less, I think, for the free food — the reason most younger staffers go to those events — and more in order to network). Bill was eager and friendly. And he thought he was capable of making a great contribution. But for months, we didn’t give him the opportunity.

Who knows? Perhaps, unlike virtually everyone else at that age with no experience and a nothing-to-do-with-actual-Congressional-work BA (political science), maybe Bill had unlikely, extraordinary political talent. Maybe he had a preternaturally advanced insight into what it takes to participate at that level. It’s possible that Bill knew and understood — without ever having done any of it — the judgment, strategy, relationship-building, coalition-creating, reading-the-room, and maturity that it takes to move up to where he wanted to go (plus, parliamentary procedure, the Rules of the House, Legislative Branch operations, etc.).

We wouldn’t know.

Why not? Why didn’t we take the chance and tap into his For All One Knows, Great Understanding of and Talent for Politics?

Because Bill couldn’t get The Box right. Never. Not once.

The Member we all worked for was organized, involved, and studious. He spent his days while the House was in session in committee hearings, meetings with constituents, and briefings. Evenings, and weekends back in his district, were for him to pore over memos, correspondence, reports, white papers, legislative updates, schedules — a ton of paperwork.

And at the end of the day, all that paper went into The Box. A full banker’s box. Which the boss took home with him. Every day. If he was out in the district, we overnighted The Box to him for the next morning.

The contents of The Box included every single letter, email, fax, note, card, or other correspondence received that day from constituents. Not a representative sample (we provided that for items received from outside of the district); every single one.

And the boss read it. All of it. Every night. The next day, we would get back The Box, a good portion of it full of margin notes, Post-Its, or with entire sheets of paper attached. Follow-ups. Direction. Decisions on cosponsorships and scheduling requests. Full response letters. Instructions for calls, and replies.

This process was repeated day in and day out.

Needless to say, it was a major task not only for the boss to get through The Box each night, but for us to prepare it and receive it back. There had to be a method. The contents would be broken up into sections, and those sections needed to be organized. And they had to be clearly marked and easily identified.

Being the overly detailed, more-than-somewhat-obsessive micromanager he was, the boss came up with a system for The Box: color-coded folders, color-coded tabs, color-coded paper clips (you read that right: he had to have the right color paper clip for the right kind of document).

You could argue with the details (or with the propriety of a Member of Congress getting so far into the weeds) but it worked for him. And he was the boss. And so we did it.

We all knew well the daily deadline for getting something into The Box, and the minutes before were a mad rush — making the system, I think, even more necessary for us than for him (and certainly more important for the person who was responsible for preparing The Box).

At the time, the overwhelming majority of the staff worked out in the district office. In addition to me, there were only four other staffers in the DC office: a Scheduler, a Senior Legislative Assistant, a Legislative Assistant, and Bill — the person assigned the responsibility for arranging, finalizing, and, on non-session days, shipping The Box.

And Bill never could get it right.

Constituent mail in the Out of District folder. Recommendations for cosponsoring bills filed with the wrong bill summaries. The previous day’s contents not fully removed. Sections out of order. Entire portions not included. Cards and letters in The Box, but their envelopes (and, therefore, the return address) thrown away.

The boss was constantly annoyed, and often upset, when he couldn’t find what he was looking for.

And the paper clips. Wow, the paper clips. Bill could not get the colors right. There were perhaps four (no more than six) colors, each signifying a different kind of attachment. The large color key was taped to the Staff Assistant’s desk. And he couldn’t get it right. It wasn’t the most complex or challenging part of the job (for that matter, neither was The Box).

And that’s why, I think, Bill didn’t get it right. Not couldn’t, but didn’t.

Each time someone would point out what was wrong with the previous day’s box, Bill would listen, and nod, and promise to do better. Then, he would say pretty much the same thing: “When am I going to move up?” or “When will you give me something interesting to do?” or “Why am I still stuck doing The Box?”

Bill said that he couldn’t understand, with “all his education” and “the broad scope of his professional experience” and “all his political knowledge” why he was not being allowed to do “more important” work.

Finally, after a few weeks of this, I pulled Bill aside as we were all leaving the office at the end of the day.

I told him that answering the phones, greeting visitors, and preparing The Box, while appearing to be “low-level” work to someone eager to move up, were not only enormously important to the boss, they were incredible opportunities. He saw everything and everyone that came into and out of the office. He greeted constituents and dignitaries and Members. He witnessed how we — the boss and the staff — dealt with legislative issues, handled policy questions, solved political problems. He could read the clips from back in the district and the briefing memos and the bill coverage and the recommendations. And he could read the returned comments, directions, instructions, and letters from the boss.

He could learn.

I told him that if he focused, and used his time wisely, and paid attention to the documents and people coming in and out, he would learn more in a year about government and politics and communications and management than he had in his four years in college.

But, I told him, the only way he would be given the opportunity to start doing “more important” work was when finally he took l seriously enough the work he was assigned to do it right. Consistently, effectively, and thoroughly right. Only then, I said, would we trust him to cover hearings, which require an accurate accounting of what when on. Only then would we trust him to write constituent responses, which require a careful analysis of not only the answer, but of the question being asked. Only then would we trust him to draft legislation and Floor speeches, which require attention to detail and [requirements too numerous to mention here].

The next day — and I mean the very next — The Box was perfect. Everything in order. Color-coordinated folders, tabs, and even paper clips. Bill started to come in a little bit earlier, and stay a little bit later, to make sure he got it right. Which he did.

After he did that, consistently, for a few weeks, we began to give Bill additional assignments. We would ask him to sit in on meetings, and go to hearings, and draft responses. He learned, and demonstrated that he had learned, and so received more opportunities to learn. And to demonstrate. And contribute. And so on.

The old adage that you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have, may in fact be good advice. But never apply that to the work itself.

First, listen, and learn, and do the job you’ve been hired to do. And do it well. That’s how you get the job you want.