What I Learned: My Year as a Congressional Innovation Fellow

After spending more than 30 years in the technology industry, I decided to leave it behind and join the policy world. Upon leaving Microsoft and moving to DC from Seattle, I quickly found myself involved in many different tech policy discussions. There were so many to choose from: Net Neutrality, encryption, online data collection, cyber bullying, phishing exploits, and many other topics. I attended weekly events, listening to policy makers and voicing my opinion where I could. I attended Congressional hearings, agency briefings, technology conferences and workshops held by various NGOs.

In DC there is a wealth of activities to keep a person busy, but I missed the opportunity to have a real impact on policy creation. While I had sat in on hearings and watched news shows religiously each Sunday, I still did not have a grasp on how Congress gathered and used information when creating legislation, especially on issues related to technology policy. Particularly lacking in the discourse on tech policy appeared to be any input from technologists, the experts who create and use these technologies on a daily basis. I wondered how I could inject myself into those kinds of conversations. Luckily one day I read a tweet about the TechCongress fellowship program, applied for a position, and was fortunate enough to be selected. This meant that I would be a “Congressional Innovation Fellow” for one year in the office of a Member of Congress or Congressional Committee, bringing my tech expertise to work for the government.

After spending a couple of weeks in orientation and finding a placement as a legislative assistant within the House Ways and Means Committee, I began to learn a lot about how Congress works. Here is what I learned:

  • Where everything is: Understanding how to get around on the Hill is very important. As much as I followed politics before becoming a fellow, I was unaware of the multiple office buildings where Senators and Congressmen are housed. It is critical to learn the building codes and the layout of the tunnels as soon as possible. That knowledge can prevent you from getting lost and being late for an important meeting. My congressional badge gave me access to all of the office buildings, the Capitol Building and each of the three Library of Congress buildings via the tunnels. By the way, the nicest cafeteria on the Hill is on the top floor of the Madison Library. One nice benefit of being a staffer is having the ability to walk through the historic Capitol Building every day.
  • How to find people: Once I was assigned a desk and given access to the Congressional network, I wanted to start meeting people. Names of staffers are part of the address book feature in Outlook, but room numbers often are not. Unfortunately, Outlook only contained names of members and staffers assigned to the House of Representatives and not the Senate. Congressional directories located near elevators contain the office number for member and committee offices, but staffers could be located in a different office, or even a different building. However, there was no easy way to find Senate email addresses. Fortunately as part of my fellowship, I was provided with access to the Quorum.us site, which provides detailed information on members and staffers that work on the Hill. Insidegov.com is a good resource as well.
  • How to be a Legislative Assistant: When a job requires Hill experience, it generally means experience as a legislative assistant (LA). The LA position is the heart and soul of a member’s or committee’s office. If you have ever watched a hearing on C-SPAN or sat in on one, then you’ve seen the witnesses who were brought in and heard the opening statements and questions from members. All of the work to make that happen comes from the LAs who are part of the member and committee offices. LAs are also responsible for organizing briefings, sending correspondence to constituents and companies, performing research on policy areas, and most importantly creating legislation. Those are the big things, and there are a lot of little things that go along with the job as well.
  • How to write legislation: I was aware that during the lifetime of a bill it goes through committees in the House and Senate, is reconciled in a Conference Committee, gets voted on by both chambers and is finally signed by the president to become a law. What I didn’t know was all the things that have to happen before a bill goes to committee. Often the LA that creates the first legislative draft that later becomes a bill. The LA, who meets with individuals and groups several times a week, may hear a recurring issue and decide it warrants legislation. The idea is discussed with the rest of the legislative team and upon consensus the LA creates a Legislative Draft. The draft is sent to the Office of Legislative Counsel (LC) for validation and proper formatting. LC will propose a series of changes that need to be resolved and the update is sent back to LC for revalidation.  At this point the LA may want to reach out contacts in other member offices, committees or even agencies to obtain Technical Assistance (TA) on the draft. Feedback from the TA is incorporated into the draft and sent back to LC. Once the draft is completed it is sent to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) for scoring, which is the process of determining the cost of the bill. Other member offices are contacted to determine if any of the members are willing to cosponsor the bill. Organizations are contacted to see if they are willing to support the bill. Once all of this work has been completed the LA goes to the floor of the House and places the legislative draft into the hopper where it will be sent to the appropriate committee for consideration. This process can take months or even years!
  • Being a technologist on the Hill: I was fortunate to be assigned the health IT portfolio where my technical background could come of use. I worked on legislation for telemedicine, universal device IDs and electronic medical record interoperability. I wasn’t a consultant who sat in a corner waiting for someone to ask me a question nor an IT person who was expected to help solve computer or network issues. I got to focus on tech policy issues. The staff I was assigned to enjoyed having someone who could unravel the intricacies of technical matters. I was involved in many constituent meetings where I played the role of technical expert. I delivered a couple of presentations to staff on how to stay safe online. For me the TechCongress program was a great success.
  • How to meet with people: One of the most important tasks an LA performs is meeting with constituents, interest groups and lobbyists. They directly and indirectly provide insights about the concerns that individuals and organizations have and how a member or committee might address them. The frequency of meetings can vary between two a week to several a day depending on time of year and whether Congress is in session or not. These meetings are an opportunity to listen and understand the visitor’s viewpoint, not to express our opinion or try to change their mind about a topic. In the end the LA wants to know how visitors’ concerns can be addressed or if merely capturing it properly for the boss is all they need. Feedback from these meetings helps members develop policy positions and decide how to cast their vote.
  • How to make a difference: It is my hope that most people who decide to become staffers do so because they want to make a positive difference in the lives of Americans. As a staffer one becomes a sought after commodity. As a consequence, that appeal can be used to shed light on areas that concern you. A staffer can send a request to any company in America asking for clarification on a topic. Most companies will be willing to send a representative to meet with staffers. This access can be used to gather support for an issue or encourage a change in behavior. Staffers can also setup a briefing where one or more companies come to the Hill to speak to the office staff or a larger group of people about a topic. When sitting in the chair of a staffer one shouldn’t worry about what to do, but what to do first.
  • How to give back: Each day that I worked on the Hill I made it a point to try to assist someone. People often believe they pay a lot in taxes and I want them to feel they are getting something tangible in return. Upon exiting the metro on the way to work on the Hill I would often run into scores of people who plan for months to make a trip to Washington DC from every state in the union and even across the globe. Seeing their eyes light up when I ask, “Can I help you find anything?” was one of the most rewarding parts of my job. I would help them find what they were looking for before heading to the office. Several times while working on the Hill I had the pleasure of giving visitors a private tour of the Capitol Building, letting them see areas that few people get to see, and even give them a ride on the Senate train. If that’s all I got to do I would have enjoyed my experience as an LA, but I got to do much, much more.

There are many other tidbits of knowledge I learned during my fellowship, but it’s the relationships which were the most endearing. There’s also the feeling of pride that comes from serving one’s country. I felt grateful every day to be able to work on the Hill. It gave me an appreciation for the difficulty of the job and a better understanding of why legislation can take so long to pass. I was lucky to be part of an amazing team that was so gracious with their time and taught me what it takes to be a productive LA.