nos-trum. pronunciation: \nos'-trum\. noun. Etymology: Latin, neuter of noster our, ours.
1. a medicine of secret composition recommended by its preparer but usually without scientific proof of its effectiveness.
2. a usually questionable remedy or scheme.
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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Who's In Charge In Congress? The Staffers?

The media reports that a Congressional staffer who was a major player in drafting the health care law has admitted privately that the law was not what the Senator (Kennedy) wanted, but "what I wanted."

I doubt most voters know that the staff frequently does what THEY want, not necessarily what their boss, or the people who elected her/him, want.  For the reporting that alleges the claim above see Politico here ("Orrin Hatch: Ted Kennedy wouldn't have wanted health care law")

I remember studying this in my MPH masters program.  There's a great book called The Dance of Legislation: An Insider's Account of the Workings of the United States Senate , by Eric Redman, now considered a classic.  Redman served on the staff of Senator Magnusson (WA) several decades ago.  His book focuses on a single piece of legislation, the 1970 National Health Service Bill (ironically a health care reform effort), and tells the story of
"the maneuvers, plots, counterplots, frustrations, triumphs, and sheer work and dedication involved. He provides a vivid picture of the bureaucratic infighting, political prerogatives, and Congressional courtesies necessary to make something happen on Capitol Hill" (publisher blurb).
If you watched the ugly process we observed in 2009 (the Cornhusker Kickback, and the Louisiana Purchase to mention only two of hundreds), and wondered how all this stuff goes on, this is the book to read.  It's hard to make legislating read like a thriller, but this comes close.

What struck me the hardest in the book is the primary role that the Congressional staff plays.  They do the work of interacting with special interests and lobbyists, negotiate with other members' staff, direct or perform the actual writing of the legislation, and promote the product to the elected member.

It's almost like they are the legislators...and the Congressional members are "front men" (and women) that are the political and vocal "face"... but not the substance of what gets done.

Shocking, really.  The book is still available from online retailers.

It helps to know that staffers begin their career (generally) as young college graduates with little to no experience of the subjects they are charged with managing (taxes, welfare, health care, agriculture, etc).  They usually have a poli sci degree.   The senior staff who've been around for 10 years or more have soaked up knowledge, but what knowledge they have is all linked to the political process they have lived every day.

[A personal anecdote of working with Congressional staffers.  I was involved with physician manning for the military back in the 90's.  We explained to the staff that we were short of orthopedic surgeons.  One young, pimply-faced staffer said, "The answer is simple; we just make all medical graduates go into orthopedic surgery."  This is the quality of thinking that's typical.]

And this partially explains why our government adopts such incompetent policies.

Doc D

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