This Week's Federal Player

Walter Oleszek: A Hill Staffer's Guide to Congressional History and Habit

Walter Oleszek, Library of Congress (CRS) expert on Congress
Walter Oleszek, Library of Congress (CRS) expert on Congress ((Photo -- Doug DeMark Photography))
From the Partnership for Public Service
Sunday, March 29, 2009; 11:00 PM

Congress is filled with experts on virtually every topic, but when questions arise about Congress itself, members and Capitol Hill staff turn to Walter Oleszek, the man who literally wrote the book.

"If there's anything about Congress that Walter does not know, then that thing doesn't exist," said Senate Parliamentarian Alan Frumin.

As the senior specialist on the legislative process at the Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service (CRS), Oleszek advises key congressional leaders about the institution's history and how best to improve its operations.

He delivers the keynote address at the orientation retreat for new members, helps powerful committee chairmen grapple with fundamental questions of governance and has written two books that have become standard reading at colleges and universities worldwide.

"If you like Congress, if you like policy and procedures, if you like Washington, it's really a terrific place to be," said Oleszek. "There are always new people. It's always changing -- and I consider myself fortunate to have spent 40 years working here."

In his position, Oleszek has earned a reputation on Capitol Hill as a preeminent authority on how Congress works.

"Walter Oleszek and his work have many fans, and I count myself chief among them," said California Rep. David Dreier, the ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee. "His knowledge of and enthusiasm for the House of Representatives, and the Rules Committee in particular, is unparalleled."

Oleszek, who is modest about his accomplishments and quick to deflect praise, downplayed his notable 40-year government career as something of an accident. Despite having earned a PhD and a teaching job at Colgate University, he decided he should get a little first-hand experience.

"All I knew is what I'd read in books," he said. He took a job in Washington and never left.

His experiences that followed helped him write books of his own. Congress and its Members, now in its eleventh edition, is the leading text on the legislative branch. Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process, which is in its seventh edition, is the essential guide to congressional lawmaking.

The job that kept Oleszek in Washington was at the Legislative Reference Service, which is now the CRS. In this capacity, he worked closely with the House Rules Committee to craft the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, a landmark law that reinvigorated the role of Congress in national policymaking.

By virtue of being one of the people who help re-write the rules, this Washington newcomer instantly became an expert on the ins and outs of Congress.


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