Senate Aides Have a Big Job -- Staying in the Background

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Whisper Brigade assembles itself on stackable plastic chairs, arranged in rows behind the senators.

Sixty-three ear-side seats.

The 23 senators, in their cushy leather swivel-thrones, postulate into microphones, gnashing over the details of this epic health-care bill consuming Washington, now deep into Week 2 and dragging into the longest Senate Finance Committee set-to in 15 years. The whisperers have their say, but almost exclusively into the senators' ears. Prompting, hinting, tipping -- a parallel dialogue, public speaker to private thinker, strictly off-mike.

There's Bill Dauster, all lanky arms and legs, stooping so low his tie drags across the left shoulder of the chairman, Max Baucus of Montana. There's Mark Hayes saying something that makes Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley's eyebrow arch.


That's D-a-u-s-t-e-r and H-a-y-e-s, and Liz Fowler and Kate Spaziani, and Jocelyn Moore, too. Not necessarily marquee names outside the capital, but outsize players in the inside game -- an exercise in fine-print and lawyerly know-how, late-night prep sessions and numbing details. (The committee opened proceedings last week with 564 amendments to contemplate!)

In this city of aides, the split goes like this: 535 members of Congress out front; more than 10,000 staffers in back. (This being staffer culture, who gets counted as "staffer" is itself intensely debated.) The many organize themselves to serve the few. Unwritten rules and traditions have evolved and they have one theme: deference.

Yet sometimes, when the city's attention is drawn to a single room, as it is right now, the deferential get nudged, whether or not they like it, into view. They're the ones in the upper corners of the television screen, when the camera zooms in to Washington's high-stakes legislative obsession of the moment. The ones leaning forward. The ones at the top of the staffer organizational charts. The ones with all the degrees -- Dauster's a lawyer -- and, in some cases, the ones with all the interesting résumés -- Spaziani, Sen. Kent Conrad's senior health policy aide, is a former health-care lobbyist, and Fowler gets knocked around a bit in the blogosphere because she was a public policy VP for the insurance giant WellPoint before becoming Baucus's senior counsel.

This can be an uncomfortable setting for the backstage operators to become faces du jour. With some notable exceptions, most staffers are doing everything they can to stay off camera. It's the preferred ethos of the Washington staffer -- do the homework, don't seek the glory . . . or else.

In other words, never ever upstage the boss.

Russ Sullivan, the Finance Committee's Democratic staff director, goes so far as to train staffers how to disappear when the full Senate meets in chamber. He has mapped what he calls "safe spots," the margins where a staffer can chill without being seen by the camera.

But there's no hiding in Hart 216, focal point for the past two weeks of all things single-payer, public option and employer mandate. In the hearing rooms, the camera sees all. Mostly it sees faces striving to affect no emotion, to convey no hint of opinion, attitude, pique or glee. Blank is best.

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