There is an ‘I’ in Immoral

I spent a few years working in the state legislature of a small, mostly rural, American state. I have stories that may shed some light on the sausage factory that is American policy making.

Some background: America is a constitutional federal republic and representative democracy. Wig-wearing alcoholics and Noble Savages used to run the country but now we make blood sacrifices under the full moon to decide our future.  That’s how laws are made in America.  I should know.  That was my job.  

The first thing you should know about working in politics is that your boss will do things you find immoral – which means you will tooI’m not talking about corruption, I’m talking the normal, everyday business of lawmaking.  

For example, the chances are your boss will want to pass laws.  That is literally their job description, and probably the reason they’re referred to as lawmakers. Your job is to perform all the little steps which makes that happen.  In case you forgot your Schoolhouse Rock:

The point is, your boss was elected to get things done for the voters.  Notice that I did not say constituents.  All of your voters are constituents but not all constituents are voters. This is an important distinction and we’ll return to it in these stories, frequently.  

Anyway, your boss is there to get shit done; which, more often than I find reasonable or comfortable, means passing laws.  There are obviously many other responsibilities but for the most part, one of the most visible ways that politicians measure their effectiveness is by passing, supporting, or fighting this or that law or proposed law, called a bill.

It’s your responsibility to do the research, draft the bill, promote the bill, vet any testimonies, secure expert witnesses, crunch the financial impacts, answer the questions other offices may have, talk other staffers into talking their bosses into supporting the bill (more on this later too), and a host of other often (un)necessary tasks, in order to transform proposed legislation into actual law.

Now, that’s your job (as regards lawmaking, there are more responsibilities.  We’ll get into those later).  How’d you get this job?  Ever heard of a political appointee?  That’s someone who was given a job in government because someone knew them.  This does not mean nepotism, although of course that happens.  You may be really qualified but that’s less important than you not sucking.  A legislator just got elected and now has a very short amount of time to fill their office.  They need someone not-stupid.  

Hey, are you not-stupid?  Do you have a degree and are currently waiting for something in your field to open up, while paying the bills as a sales associate or barista?

Imagine your old roommate calls and tells you about an immediate job opening — possibly part-time, not much security (no matter what, every two to four years your boss needs to be reelected and anyway the legislative session usually only lasts a few months) — but it’s relatively decent pay, insurance, and seems somewhat prestigious.  Anyway, you remember being idealistic once and wanting to make a difference in the world.

“Is this legislator person okay?” You ask.

“Not bad.  Not crazy.  You’ll disagree with some things and agree with other things.”

Screw it.  If you have to inhale pumpkin spice latte fumes one more day you’ll kill someone.

Congrats.  You’re now a political appointee.

Your boss is okay, seems to share your values, and is not crazy.  But you have some fundamental disagreements over certain issues.  And your job is to help your boss pass laws.

Which means you will be directly responsible for enacting legislation that you think will make some people’s lives worse.  You will actively fuck up people’s lives.  On purpose.

No matter how careful you are, no matter how diligent or well-informed, no matter how principled and high-minded, you will end up working for someone who ultimately will vote in a way you disagree with. Usually this will be small potato stuff-things like appropriations or amendments that have no chance of passing but are submitted just to make a point or symbolic bills that you think are pointless and maybe even stupid but ultimately pretty harmless (I’m looking right at you, official state gun bills).

Inevitably however, there will be a good bill or a bad bill – basically a bill that you feel pretty strongly about. And your boss will vote in exactly the opposite way that you advised them to. That you did all the work on the damn bill is just insult to injury.

The thing about law-making, if I haven’t made it clear, is that it requires a lot of work. A ton of research, the actual drafting of the bill, the redrafting of the bill after talking with experts, advocacy groups, other legislators and their staff, soliciting experts to testify on behalf of – or against – the bill, and recruiting witnesses to rend the heartstrings of heartless members on various committees (this is not hyperbole, it is a recognized scientific fact that members of Finance or Ways and Means Committees have their blood replaced with a viscous mix of hatred and polling data, and require only the tears of department and agency heads for subsistence).


The Body politic

Besides this work though there is also the need to get your bill heard in whichever committee it has been assigned to, ensuring that you have the votes for it to pass out of committee and then duplicating that when it comes for a general vote before the Body (not Jesse Ventura. The Body is the legislative chamber, generally either a House or Senate). You talk to staffers from this or that office, agency, department or group, trying your damnedest to ensure that you have every possible answer to every possible question that may be asked of your bill. And then, after all the hard-work and the proper amount of sacrificial offerings to the Olde Gods (pro-tip: Robert’s Rules demands virgins, Mason’s needs first-born children. NEVER mix them up), your bill passes, becomes law…and your boss gets all the credit.

I should probably mention that you will probably have very little help.  Most state legislative offices are small and you will likely be one of maybe three staffers in the office.  Your colleagues have their own souls to mortgage, so it’s all on you. 

Then it turns out that some political maneuver is necessary and your boss votes against/for the damn bill. Maybe there’s a backroom deal that’s being made between different legislators or parties or caucuses, strategic vote-trading basically.  Perhaps enough voters were corralled by the opposition or an advocacy group into calling in their opinions that your boss, a person whose job is dependent upon people liking and voting for them, is swayed. Whatever the reason, the result is that you were directly involved in doing the polar opposite of the right thing.

And what are you going to do about it?  Quit?  Unless your landlord stops demanding rent or your loans are magically paid off, you probably need a few weeks at absolute minimum to look for a new job.  Besides, it was one vote out of one hundred; does this one negate the others?  You’ll only work for someone who agrees with you 100%? Good luck finding that person. Politics is the art of compromise, from top to bottom, and if you can’t pragmatically negotiate around your soul every now and then you’ll have a very short career in the Swamp.

I have more stories from the Swamp of American politics.  Tales of how working in politics sucks.  And of why it also rocks.  Real-world anecdotes of how democracy is terrifying.  And inspiring.  I look forward to sharing some of them with you. 

I’m also collecting stories from across the country; political appointees, actual politicians, activists, advocates, lobbyists, lawyers, candidates, and consultants.  If you have any experiences you’d love to share, please drop me a line in the comments or by email or at the contact me link or DM. Anonymity is assured if you want it.  

Thomas Brown is a history teacher and recovering political consultant hiding out in the American South. He is also managing editor of The Swamp and has been published in The Bipartisan PressAlaska Native NewsGENHuman EventsTimes of IsraelDialogue & DiscourseFollow him at his Medium page and argue with him on Twitter: @reallythistoo.

If you like the content you find in The Swamp please consider making a donation. The Swamp-rat team works hard to bring you new perspectives and original analysis which is only possible through the denial of our loved ones and your generous support. You can click here to donate via Paypal or credit card. Thanks for enjoying The Swamp and for your support!

Categories: First Person Politics, Government, Politics

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1 reply


  1. What do you need to be a successful political staffer? | The Swamp

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