Whenever you read about the history of any recent politician (or at least, American politicians) it says "They were an aide in the Clinton administration" or something similar. What exactly do these aides do? Clearly it's some sort of progression path to actually holding the office, and seems similar to the typical "master/apprentice" relationship that so many trades have had over the years. But what are the typical day to day duties of an "aide", and why are they so important?
When I worked on the Hill (the U.S. Capitol) back in the '90s, I had the opportunity to visit with the staffs of several members of Congress, both on the House and Senate side.
What they do: (Hint - Read the Mail and vette the issues)
Typically, there were three types of political aides:
Interns / Junior Legislative Assistants
On the bottom of the totem pole were the guys (and gals) doing "Constituent Services." This basically involved reading all the mail that came in, and doing one of two things.
If the letter was regarding policy coming in front of the member, the opinion would be discerned, the results marked in a tally (to get for & and against), and a response would be put together drawing from language that had already been approved by the member. The fun responses were always the off-the-wall "the CIA is stealing my brain waves," variety. I did once have a friend who suggested a tin foil hat, and was thanked for the response.
The other segment of mail was the "help, the government is screwing me over" category, in which a constituent was the victim of some bureaucratic snafu, and the Member would then write to the officicrat or minor potentate involved, asking them politely to reconsider their draconian approach to implementation. (Translation: The guy who votes for me is getting screwed. I control your funding. Want to re-think what you are up to?) The legitimate variation on this is a recommendation to one of the military academies. All would-be students need personal recommendations from their member of Congress. Since very few students actually know their member directly, interns get to write the glowing recommendation. It is typically a form letter, too.
Note: Answering mail is the day-to-day work of the office - both the miniscule closets they call "offices" on the Hill, and in the luxurious district offices located back home. The prestige is definately on the hill, but it is an honor much like the Lawn Rooms at UVA. You pay for the "honor" by giving up any semblance of comfort. You also work insane hours when the Congress is in session.
Note also, on the House side, you'll typically have 5 - 10 junior staff (all sitting in one desk the size of a normal cubicle!), and on the Senate, typically 20 - 30. Random fact - every room in the Capitol complex, from the Ford Annex to the Russell building have office numbers that are either HOB-XXX (house office building), or SOBs, for Senate office Buildings... Indeed, the latter is often highly appropriate.
After you get a little bit of tenure under your belt and develop a certain amount of acumen, you move up in the world. The job of the Legislative Assistant is to become the expert on certain pieces of legislation. For all but the most trivial legislation (using a resolution of some kind honoring some guy you've never heard of), the LA is the person who reads the bill, gathers the research, and must present both sides to the member. (Note: For the 1000 page bills, usually staff from various officies will pool their work, or, even in some cases, the staff will be attached to the committee, rather than the member.) The LA's obvious influence here comes from his or her expertise. Having read the bill and done the research, the LA can use what he knows of the members native views to advise the Member, both in terms of how the Member should vote and what the opposition will do. The rookie mistake here is for the LA to either neglect both sides of the case, or ever let the Member catch on to the power the LA has. LA are disposable - every two years its a game of musical chairs anyway - and in any event, most worker protections don't apply. As such, if the LA is not acting in accordance with the Member, they will be canned. So, the smart ones learn to be neutral-seeming purveyors of knowledge upon which the Member feasts.
Note also, the best lobbyists will lobby the Member, but they will also get to know the LAs well. It is not unheard of for the Member to have an idea, and ask the LA to draft a bill. The overworked LA, in turn, goes to the lobbyist and asks for "model legislation." This gets looked over, tweaked, and presented to the Member, who submits the bill.
Know that movie meme of the secretary who knows more than her boss? That's the LD. The LD supervises the LAs, and has the ultimate power - the power of the Member's calendar. An administrative assistant might actually hit the keys in Outlook, but the LD schedules the votes, the committee hearings, and the lobbyists that the members will see, the lunches the Member will attend, and scheduling the hours in which the Member will step outside of the buildings to dial for dollars.
LDs are often building their own connections, either in order to:
a. Go run the Committee Staff (e.g. "I'm the shared resource on the Appropriations Committee")
b. Go run a small to large executive department (There are about 8000 Schedule C political appointees running departments of 50 - 50000 people - offices like the FEMA, the NCIX, National Labor Relations Board, the FCC, etc...)
c. Consider running for the Members seat when the Member retires
d. Go run a Think Tank like the Heritage Foundation or the Children's Legal Defense Fund
Politicians often get to know the LDs as well as the Members themselves, because of the control the LD has over the schedule and hence the Member. The LDs can actually get things done. Because of these relationships being built, the LD is amassing a powerful personal asset that can be used when the LD burns out (typically in his mid to late 30s or early 40s.) This is the game - you pay your dues and you move on.
And then, of course, there is:
This is the guy that actually got elected. He votes, makes appearances, and hires a very good LD to control his schedule. Of the 438 members of Congress, there are probably about 10 - 20 that actually matter, and all but 3 of them think they are in that 10 - 20. Most of his time is spent talking to people and saying "My staff will get back to you. Now, let's step out of the office so you can tell me, how are you going to help my campaign?" (Kidding aside, the Member's chief role is fundraising, leading this herd of kittens, and making the final call on votes. Trust me, that's work enough!)
What political aides don't do
The big rule about political aides is that they do not solicit votes. To be sure, every constituent contact is good PR, but the rules are very, very, very clear that the appearance of impropriety in asking for money or votes is a big NO-NO. Even the Member leaves the Capitol complex, heads down to a little shelf and uses the telephone outside the building, when asking for money or votes. That's why the Member has so many offices. You just can't do anything to get [re]elected from within the building - at least not overtly.
If you want to volunteer for the campaign on your own time, outside the building, go knock yourself out. But you do not mail a letter, you do not make a call, you do not update the Member's campaign web page from within the walls of a Congressional building. That gets the member in trouble, and you fired.
So, to sum up - Aides advise the member, answer the mail, and fix stuff for voters constituents 24x7x365. They sleep between 3am and 4am, and either burn out or just go slowly insane. And these are the 20 - 25 year old guys really running the country, at least when they are sober. Sleep well.
The number of things that your typical senator/representative is expedted to do/learn is often too much for a single person to do, so they hire political aides to help them.
Your senator/representative generally doesn't personally read all the mail that is written to him, or even completely read entire bills that he/she has to vote upon.
Political Aides are people that their office hires to do a lot of that research and clerical work.
- Consult with and advise government officials, civic bodies, research agencies, the media, political parties, and others concerned with political issues.
- Evaluate programs and policies, and make related recommendations to institutions and organizations.
- Identify issues for research and analysis.
- Interpret and analyze policies, public issues, legislation, and/or the operations of governments, businesses, and organizations.
- Maintain current knowledge of government policy decisions.