James Boyd on Life in Congress

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The great irony of Congress is that the men and women we send to Washington to make policy spend only a fraction of their time actually doing that. Former Senate staffer James Boyd captured the absurdity of the situation in the magazine’s first issue, imagining a day in the life of a hypothetical senator.

The senator starts his typical day tired. He returned very late last night from a speech back home, and he had to get up early this morning to present himself at a breakfast sponsored by utility executives. (“These guys come here mostly for a good time, but to make it look official, they nail me for an hour when I can’t claim a conflicting engagement.”) In the gray light of the cab he gives his New York Times a ten-minute reading, hoping that his aides will let him know if anything important happened yesterday. The breakfast is a bore, naturally, but he hopes he convinced those Republican businessmen that he is one Democrat who understands their problems.

He arrives at his office at 9:30, already thirty minutes late, grousing to himself about the three hurried minutes it takes to get down the long corridor. (“After another term, I’ll be better situated.”) He goes in through his private door, sovisitors won’t see him. He has the usual committee meeting scheduled at ten o’clock, and he remembers that yesterday he tried to accommodate his legislative assistant by agreeing to be briefed for half an hour on everything under consideration by the committee.

But a check confirms his suspicion: his waiting room is crowded with people he can’t ignore. He apologizes to his assistant and tells his secretary to “run them in.” One of them helped him in an election back in the dim past. (“He just wants to say hello and show his wife that he has entree to a senator’s office.”) Then there is a delegation of union people who contributed to his campaign last time. They want to let him know they are watching what he does on that compulsory arbitration bill.

By now the hearing has started. But there are more constituents, or self-proclaimed representatives of constituents, to be seen. He greets them, one after another, listens, nodding agreeably for a few minutes, and turns them over to his executive aides. But he worries. He gets a lot of votes by helping constituents, and this service is one of his major assets during campaigns. He knows it takes up half the time of his staff, time that he needs for help on the issues. And besides, even though he helps these people, he knows that most of the things they ask are wrong or antithetical to the public interest.

If a call from his office to the Veterans Administration causes the disability file of John Jones to be pulled from the middle of the pile and placed on top, it only means that all the others are set back one. Jones doesn’t care about the others, of course, and the others won’t find out, but it’s a funny way to run a country. It is past eleven o’clock when he gets to the committee hearing. During the walk over, his legislative assistant gives him a hurried, capsule briefing, just enough to confuse him. In the hearing he asks the wrong questions. So do other senators who come and go every few minutes. The questions that get to the heart of the matter are sorare as to seem accidental, and the needed follow-up question is almost never asked. By ten minutes of 12:00 he has picked up the thread, but it’s time to get to the Senate floor to insert into the Congressional Recorda number of press releases just handed him by his head speechwriter. (“If I get there late, I’ll be late for lunch with my campaign finance chairman. He can’t be kept waiting.”)

There are two afternoon committee sessions. He goes to the one that’s being televised. As for the other, a closed session where legislation is being drafted, he sends his proxy to the chairman. By four o’clock he leaves the televised hearing (the camera has been shut off) to have his picture taken on the Capitol steps with a high school class from back home. Afterward he takes them into the Senate Reception Room, makes a little speech, shakes hands, and presents each visitor with an embossed ballpoint pen. (“They’ll all be voters in three or four years, and their parents are voters now.”)

He is late for his 4:30 appointment at NASA, but he knows that the top men there will wait for a senator. (“Come to think of it, why didn’t I have the meeting scheduled in my own office?”) He is accompanied by businessmen from his state who are bidding for a government contract. The meeting is mercifully short. (“I loused up my presentation, but I gave them that I’ll-remember-at-appropriation-time look and I don’t think they’ll give me the runaround again.”) Lobbying for businessmen eats up his time in great chunks. He sometimes feels that he is forever appearing before a regulatory commission or testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee at the behest of some business or other.

Back in the office at 5:45 for some paperwork—but his secretary hands him a list of twenty phone calls that must be returned. He picks out six from the array of home-state politicians, reporters, and contributors; he turns the rest over to his administrative assistant. He finishes the calls at 6:30 and asks his staff in. They have been waiting for a crack at him all day on matters they think are urgent. But those matters must wait; today is the last day he can name his state’s quota to West Point. Awash in papers, he starts trying to balance the grades of boys he doesn’t know against the recommendations of people he owes favors. He finally scribbles the prescribed number of names, and that’s that.

By now his aides can tell from his gray countenance that he is bushed, so they don’t press him for decisions. Everyone has a drink or two, the talk is pleasant and general, and gradually the chief’s energy revives. His cleaning is brought in and he changes. He has dinner scheduled tonight with a columnist who has seven outlets in his state. (“I’d better not have that third drink.”) And after that, he has promised to take his wife to an embassy party.

He hates the thought of it, but he hasn’t seen her for three nights, and tomorrow night he will be speaking for a $1,500 fee in Pennsylvania. (“She’s always telling me how tired I look and how I ought to slow down and get some rest, but she sure likes those parties.”) Maybe when he gets home, around midnight, he’ll take an hour to dig into his briefcase, to read that material on the population explosion, on a new idea for housing in the ghetto, on the missile defense system, on the currency crisis, on the nuclear proliferation treaty. Yes, he’s been trying to get to that briefcase for days.

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From "Legislate? Who, Me?" February 1969. James Boyd is now retired and living in Virginia.  
 
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