Pictured: Marc Canellas (left) and Bill Nye the Science Guy prior to the 2018 launch of the bipartisan, bicameral Planetary Science Congressional Caucus, which is co-chaired by Rep. Kilmer.
It’s been almost two years since my last day as a 2017-2018 IEEE-USA Congressional Fellow with Representative Derek Kilmer (Wash.-6). I’ll be forthright and say that my year on the Hill was the most formative 12 months in my life, and I cannot recommend the experience enough.
No matter where you are in the process — from thinking about applying to interviewing, from oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-I-got-it to becoming a full-fledged staffer — I know there is a lot of second-guessing about whether it will all be worth it. Not only did I have to convince myself this was going to be worth it, but I also had to convince my wife that walking away from my just-budding Ph.D. career was a smart decision.
I wanted to write an article for that voice in the back of your head to convince you first, that you should definitely apply, and, second, that when you get there you can be successful. Ready?
Full disclaimer: I tend to be a sparkly-glowy writer about my experience on the Hill. On balance, it was an amazing experience that I wouldn’t have had any other way. But that makes the rough patches easier to talk about. I had members and their staffers betray promises to me and my boss. I had people overtly attack my constituents, my district, and my boss. I spent months working on legislation and building coalitions that got to the cusp of success but were cut down at the last minute by single actors. I made some serious mistakes with constituents and staffers that friends and colleagues had to clean up. I saw disgusting, vindictive policies be advanced while there was nothing that I or my office could do to stop it.
I describe the experience as the “most formative” for a reason. It wasn’t perfect. But if someone, a politician — especially a politician — tells you that everything they did in politics worked perfectly, they are lying. There were lows and highs, as to be expected in the 24/7, media-frenzied trench warfare that is Congress — especially working for a House member in the minority in 2017-2018.
The reason it was formative was that I learned more than I could have expected and loved — absolutely loved — the people in my office, the people that I fought beside. They were smart, funny, honorable, and made me prouder than I’ve ever been to be a part of this country. They demanded the best of me like they demanded the best of themselves, and brought the best out of me. I looked forward to going to the office every day.
All right, with that disclaimer up front, let’s get into the specifics.
WHY SHOULD YOU APPLY?
The benefits of the fellowship outweigh the opportunity cost.
Regardless of how your current salary compares to what you’ll earn as a fellow — and you get paid well enough to live and enjoy Washington, D.C. — this fellowship provides an unparalleled experience and unique opportunity to serve your country. Almost no one gets to just walk into a Congressional office and serve as a Legislative Assistant advising members of Congress on real, substantive policy. Getting to that position typically takes multiple years of commitment, low-pay, and connections. But as a Fellow, you’ll be fought over by offices for such a position. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Take it.
Your political education will differentiate you, and you’ll never read political news the same.
It is an incredibly rare person to have the technical expertise of an advanced engineer and the political expertise from working as a legislative staffer in Congress.
You’ll learn how the regulations governing your industry get developed; how the bills, strategies, and concepts get formed; and who the stakeholders are, why they were chosen, and what their perspectives are.
You’ll learn the federal government’s version of hard and soft power. Most of the ways business gets done is outside of the public eye. There are many informal methods of shaping opinion, gathering consensus, and motivating, and you will have to master them all: how you shape your argument, how you build your coalition, how you write that introductory email, and so much more.
You’ll learn how Congress actually works. Even the books on the legislative process focus on the theory, because the reality is too much soap opera. The House is a collection of 435 independent contractors in a loose confederation, where not only does the majority rule, but the majority makes the rules. Sometimes the rules matter, sometimes they don’t. Your job is to know when it matters.
You’ll learn how to decrypt political news. Just because people have the same letters after their name doesn’t mean they’re friends, and just because they have different letters doesn’t mean they’re enemies. You’ll know how intra-party politics work, and how to discern what the public sees as a concession or a loss, from a horse trade for later concessions. You’ll be able to predict the future of a bill from a single glance at Congress.gov, aggregating the committee and co-sponsor names into a surprisingly accurate estimate.
You’ll learn where the positions of power are. You’ll know which committees matter for which issues – just the names of the Committee are rarely enough to know the true sources. You’ll know the nuances of appropriations season – at least when we do it on-time, though it’s been so long, I’ve forgotten what that looks like. You’ll know the intra-party power struggles and how to use them to your advantage, and when to avoid getting in the middle of a battle.
As a corollary, you’ll never be able to watch political news in the same way. People will ask why you’re watching C-SPAN and you’ll snap back saying “This is pure and unfiltered!” You’ll laugh at the House soliloquies, and pray for the staffers in the back of meetings who have to keep a straight face when things go crazy. You’ll argue with talking heads on TV and radio shows who read a snippet of an article and don’t realize their being played by the politicians, and how nothing is really as it seems.
You’ll have a job where your success is almost entirely dependent on social skills and your trustworthiness.
Can you build a coalition of support for your policy? That is one of the fundamental requirements of success on the Hill. The only way to build coalitions is through gaining people’s trust as an honest broker and a savvy negotiator.
It will feel weird to work in a place where the technical merits of your idea are insufficient for success — but if you look around at your graduate school or office, this is a better approximation of the “real world” than you may realize.
Learn how failure isn’t always failure.
Having a piece of legislation signed into law is undoubtedly the high mark of a politician. It doesn’t take long to find them in any office as they’re typically framed and put on the wall.
But sometimes your job is to advance the bill and advance the conversation, so that when the right constellation of politics and national politics align, your boss will be ready. It may take multiple months, years, or sessions of Congress, but that’s ok. What starts with a few co-sponsors and never gets out of Committee may eventually get a companion bill in the other chamber, and then one day become a part of a major piece of legislation.
Other times, it’s “delay, deny, dispossess.” Alright, yes, this was a phrase engrained in me by my soccer coach, but it is key to politics. From the first day of our IEEE Congressional Fellow orientation, we learned that the job of Congress is not to pass good legislation, it is to stop bad legislation from getting passed. There is a lot of bad legislation out there. Some of it immoral and discriminatory, and much of it just not well thought out. In those situations, the best thing for your constituents is to stop that legislation.
As an aside, this is exactly how the founders envisioned it. Seriously, read Madison’s Federalist 51 from 1787, explaining the reason for the checks-and-balances structure of our federal government: “[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
You’ll be fighting for something bigger than yourself.
Everything you do, you do for the country, for your constituents, and for your boss. Everything I did was on behalf of my boss and my constituents. No one knows who staffers are, and that’s ok because that’s the point. Just like so many others who do public service, our job is not about us, it’s about those we serve and how much we dedicate to them.
Success is all about who you know, and you’ll know all the right people.
You will meet all kinds of people who help shape the decisions and directions of the federal government, and often you will be one of those people. You’ll have meetings, negotiations, and briefings with all of them. If you do good work, which you will, then you’ll find mentors and colleagues who can — and will — offer you jobs in the future.
You will fall in love with the people of Congress.
Congress is made up of people. That may seem obvious, but people often forget that all the bills and regulations only get done thanks to hundreds of members, thousands of staffers, and even larger set of support mechanisms, from the Congressional Research Service to the cashiers, janitors, and security guards who you’ll see every day.
The lack of progress in Congress reflects our society and the fundamental mechanisms designed by the founders (again, you should blame people like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison). But in the end, it is all of these humans, with all of their own lives and families, who work nearly 24/7 to get Congress to pass legislation, pass a budget, and fix problems.
You’ll learn to navigate a complicated set of relationships.
You’ll learn that political party is a powerful force. But you’ll learn that being a good person is more important than that capital letter after your boss’s name. You’ll have friends who will work for a member who is diametrically opposed to what you believe in on every issue but one, and you’ll work together on that issue. You’ll learn when to fight publicly, when to fight privately, and when to back down. You’ll have friends of the same party that oppose you while strangers from the other party will to go battle for you — and it’ll all make sense.
You might just fall in love with the work and decide to stay.
If you want the experience to be short term, it can be. One full year to explore something new. Maybe it’s a stepping stone to a new job, or you’ll take your new experiences back to your current employer.
But, if you decide you like your experience, you can try to stay. You can apply for a second fellowship year. If you love your experience, you can also apply to positions on the Hill. Fellows have stuck around and have become legislative assistants, committee staffs, and chiefs of staff.
HOW DO YOU BECOME A SUCCESSFUL STAFFER?
So, you’ve been selected to be a Fellow and you’re wondering how to be a good staffer. First of all, you’ve gotten this far, so you’ll be fine.
Good people, first, and good work, second, are far more important than a famous name and your dream policy area.
This is absolutely the most important advice I can give. Seriously, I will say again for clarity: Good people, first, and good work, second, are far more important than a famous name and your dream policy area.
A good office with good people and good work will almost assuredly result in a great experience. As my disclaimer at the beginning outlined, working in Congress is an amazing experience but it’s not easy. It’s not war but there are battles every day. You need people who you can rely on and who you enjoy being around so that you can be at your best every day. The best way to think about it is that you’re looking for a family, because that is who they should become by the end of your tenure.
Despite this advice that many of us former fellows give, every year, fellows rush their placement, get smitten with a famous name and their dream policy area. Don’t do this. Do not rush the process. People will pressure you. You will pressure you. Do not give in. Don’t give into promises without confirmation by former fellows or former staffers who have experience working in or with that office.
Remember that you are the valuable commodity. You are the coveted staffer. You are smart, hardworking, and free! Use that to your advantage. The decision of where you are placed should be based on the quality of people and quality of work. If you need more information, ask.
What should you ask about? Talk to former fellows and demand that they give you the good and the bad about their experience, and not just the ones who come back to sit on the panels. Find the people who were in that office or worked with that office.
What should you be looking for? Find out whether the member is a good person to work for. Find out whether the staff likes coming into work each day. Find someone who you believe in, with staff who believes in them. You may not agree with all of their policies (I didn’t), but you aren’t looking for a clone of yourself, you’re looking for good people fighting the good fight.
What should you avoid? If the office is not considered trustworthy by other members, you will not be able to do good work. If the staffers do not trust or feel respected by their boss, you will not be able to do good work.
Work in a personal office in the House!
If I can add in a little bias: work in the House! Some people think that the House is a little less prestigious, but just ignore those Senate snobs. The House staffs are significantly smaller, so that will give you much more autonomy over your policy areas. In our office, all federal policy was split between four or five staffers. Also, there are significantly more members to coordinate in the House, which contributes to the chaos, fun, and complexity of the work.
You are not there to “save” Congress with your brilliance. You are there to be a teammate — a smart, passionate, and hard-working teammate.
Do not believe the myth that you’ll be coming into these offices saving them from their ignorance with your brilliant intellectual knowledge of science and engineering. You won’t. The first thing these offices are looking for are more bright, hard-working, passionate teammates to help them serve their constituents and country. “More” because a good office will already be full of bright, hard-working, passionate people. Sure, almost none will have the same technical background as you, but they have their own areas of expertise and are thriving despite being stressed, overworked, and underpaid. They need all the good help they can get.
Of course, all of us fellows can list off how our federal government fails to govern or regulate our specific areas of interest in ways that conform with accepted science. But so can most staffers. So, do not have a default belief that the staffers, lobbyists, and constituents are ignorant. If you do, you are going to be wrong, and you are going to fail.
In truth, there are more constraints on offices and the legislature than you can imagine. Offices operate in a 24/7 news cycle with responsibilities for voting on thousands of bills relating to 300 million people and a $4 trillion-dollar budget. They must be available nearly 24/7 to their constituents in their district or state. They must predict future issues facing their constituents and our country, while also spending time to lay the foundation for future initiatives and partnerships. The responsibility is immense, and the time is minuscule.
In a House office, there may be four to six staffers who handle all policy for their boss. Think about that for a moment: four to six people handling any policy issue of the entire federal government. In my office, I handled aerospace, cybersecurity, science and technology, transportation, and STEM education. At one point, I also handled military, veterans, intelligence, trade, and tax policy. At another point, I also handled judiciary, immigration, and telecom.
Figure out early what success looks like in your office.
Early on in your fellowship, take a joint meeting with your fellow staffers, legislative director, and chief-of-staff to learn how to conduct a constituent meeting (especially the 15-minute intro-background-ask variety), what internal memos look like, what the boss’s priorities are, and how much autonomy you have and will have over your policy areas.
Work with staffers, with lobbyists, with constituents to better understand what they do and what constraints they have on their work. When you’re talking with them, always think about how they view the world, how they prioritize the problems, and how they view your office and your work.
A few other things to figure out: the chain of command in your office; where and how you can be entrepreneurial, and when you need to just toe the line; and who are the offices and organizations to know to partner with or to avoid.
If you’re offered to help with policy, do phone banking for your boss, go on a trip, get coffee, host a tour of constituents, always, always, always say “yes.”
Trust and reliability are the currency of Congress.
Lastly, and most importantly, given the chaos and politics that govern the operations of Congress, being trustworthy and reliable are worth their weight in gold.
Good luck and Godspeed.
Want to spend a year in Washington?
IEEE-USA is seeking qualified U.S. IEEE members to spend a year in Washington working as advisers to the U.S. Congress and to the U.S. Department of State or U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The fellowship program gives U.S. IEEE members an opportunity to learn firsthand about the public policy process while imparting their knowledge and experience to policymakers. The deadline to apply for 2021-2022 Fellowships is 7 December 2020 at 5 PM ET
Dr. Marc Canellas is the Vice-Chair of the IEEE-USA Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems Policy Committee. He is also a third-year law student, Cybersecurity Service Scholar, and Jacobson Leadership Program in Law and Business Scholar at the New York University School of Law in New York, USA. He earned his Ph.D. in aerospace and cognitive engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.