About the Author: Dorothy C. Shea is a Foreign Service Officer who recently completed an assignment as a Pearson Fellow to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
For the past year, I've served in a unique posting, at once familiar and foreign. It has been my good fortune to be assigned as a Pearson Fellow to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When I received my Assignment Notification, the duty station was listed as Washington, DC. I'm a DC native, so I know the District well. I even live on Capitol Hill. Yet, if I'd been blindfolded en route to my first (and subsequent) days of work on the Hill, I could easily have mistaken my new environs for a foreign posting. I'm working on many of the same issues that I have worked on at the Department, but I'm a world apart. Life is so different on this end of Constitution Avenue; I jokingly refer to it as the "Federal Republic of the Hill."
Thankfully, my experiences adapting to previous overseas assignments prepared me for the challenges that come with serving on the Hill. To name a few relevant tricks of the trade:
• Developing Language Skills: As with any foreign posting, the State Department officer assigned to the Hill must develop proficiency in the local language to succeed. While the language spoken on the Hill bears a certain resemblance to English, one should not try to coast on English alone. Some examples of key words/concepts include the following: bill, resolution, motion, hold, rule, oversight, cloture, reconciliation, morning business, oh yes, and recess. As when studying a foreign language, scheduling regular sessions with language partners can help one learn the nuances of usage and master the idioms.
• Learning the Culture: Similarly, as when preparing for an assignment to a foreign land, one should seek to learn as much as possible about its history and culture. In the case of the Hill, the history is rich and its culture particular. Volumes have been written about it. Blockbuster movies have showcased its idiosyncrasies. Serving domestically or overseas, State Department employees often get glimpses of Congressional life, whether in the form of Congressional Delegations, Congressional correspondence, or other forms of oversight. We frequently contribute to Congressionally-mandated reports. Some of us have been asked to brief Hill staff, or even testify. But to really understand Hill culture, one should immerse oneself in it. Spend some quality time in the House and Senate Office Buildings. Observe the groups of constituents coming through to see their elected officials. Take in the lobbyists working the corridors. See the staffers sprinting to meetings. Attend some hearings. Watch some floor debate. Hang out in one of the many fine eating establishments on site. Be absolutely glued to your Blackberry. Take a ride on the Capitol subway. Just don't ride in a Members Only elevator!
• Networking: When one arrives at a foreign posting, it is critical to get out there and start making contacts. Ideally, the incoming officer finds a "contacts list" left by one's predecessor that provides information about key contacts one should begin reaching out to and cultivating. One should expect no such list upon arriving on the Hill, since Pearsons serve in a variety of different offices covering any number of different issues. But, one shouldn't be shy about creating one's own network. Indeed, one's success will depend on it. Thankfully, Congressional staffers are used to being cold-called, and I've found most to be quite approachable and happy to share their wisdom. After making the rounds with my fellow staffers on the Committee, who provided invaluable guidance as I was getting my bearings, I reached out to staff at that tremendous resource, the Congressional Research Service. Between those calls, and making the rounds at State, USAID, and other relevant agencies, as well as outreach to the myriad non-governmental organizations that cover my issues, I now boast quite the rolodex. The truth is, I couldn't do my job without these contacts.
My time on the Hill has been so rewarding, I'm in denial about the conclusion of my one-year detail. Come to think of it, that's another similarity with foreign postings. It can be so hard to pull up those roots when it's time to go. Thus, I'm hoping that when I move on to my next assignment, I'll find that the other end of Constitution Avenue isn't a world away, after all.