Political Influence: The Importance of Staff

Political influence in Washington greatly depends on access and influence with key congressional and executive branch staff. This reality was well-described in the following excerpts from the 1988 classic, The Power Game, by Hedrick Smith.

The Importance of Congressional Staff

The staff explosion was forced by the limits of time and rising demands. Senators and congressmen had to ease their own workloads, for they were stretched too thin, dealing with floor debates, subcommittee work, campaign fund-raising, and travel home every weekend. What’s more, no single person can keep up with the sprawling substance of policy. On a normal day, a senator or congressman has two and sometimes three simultaneous committee hearings, floor votes, issue caucuses, meetings with other congressmen from his state or region, plus lobbyists, constituents, and press to handle. He will dart into one hearing, get a quick fill-in from his staffer, inject his ten minutes’ worth and rush on to the next event, often told by an aide how to vote as he rushes onto the floor. (p. 280)

The power of a committee and its chairman quite frequently rests on the quality of its staff. (p. 274)

Take Norman Dicks, who spent eight years as an aide to Senator Warren Magnuson of Washington and then won election to the House in 1976. A year later, he remarked to my New York Times colleague Martin Tolchin: “People asked me how I felt about being elected to Congress, and I told them I never thought I’d give up that much power voluntarily.” (p. 281)

“You see,” said a former Senate staff director, “a really good politician becomes a spokesman rather than a hands-on expert.” (p. 280)

“Many lobbyists consider it hopeless to approach a senator or congressman unless they have first laid out their position to the staff. Without staff support, they reckon their chances are slim with the Big Man himself. (p. 282)

The Importance of Executive Branch Staff

What is astonishing is that people with long experience in the Washington power game somehow forget that the president’s staff can overpower cabinet members, regardless of protocol or formal rank. … [C]onfusion arises because cabinet members are given public prominence, treated as symbols of the president’s delegated authority. They must go through the process of Senate confirmation, whereas White House aides do not (perhaps they should). Cabinet secretaries are the public spokesmen for policies, even when the main outlines were formulated largely in the White House. Cabinet rank connotes prestige and influence – and occasionally the power to match. But the smartest cabinet officers know that they cross the White House staff at their peril. For when it comes to infighting, the inner circle has clear advantage over the outer circle. (pp. 303-304)

In any administration, the power of the White House staff stems from personal links to the president: trust, proximity, and seeing the world from his personal perspective. Trust usually develops from long, loyal association … proximity gives these people enormous power. A cabinet secretary needs their help just to get into the Oval Office. Essentially, no memo, no policy recommendation, no political appeal could reach … any president, without staff approval. (pp. 300-301)

This article is adapted from Patrick Lester, Leading from Below, Alliance for Children and Families: April 30, 2008.


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