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Samuel Dewey Explains How to Understand the Role of Congressional Staffers and the Terms Used on the Hill

Capitol Hill is its world. Therefore, understanding the specialized language and terminology used on Capitol Hill is fundamental for new staffers. In this article, Sam Dewey explains the role of Congressional staffers and the essential vocabulary you’ll need to learn to fit into this new and exciting environment.

Roles of Congressional Staffers

The personal staff of Congressional members has a wide variety of job descriptions depending on their area of expertise. Here are a few that you’re likely to interact the most with.

At the forefront is the Chief of Staff, who reports directly to their member of Congress and is typically in charge of overall office operations, such as assigning workloads and supervising other staff members.

The Legislative Director (“LD”) oversees the member’s legislative agenda by identifying opportunities to advance critical proposals and advise the member’s positions on pending legislation aligned with the member’s policy priorities. The legislative director works alongside Legislative Assistants (“LAs”) who handle day-to-day operations and are supported by junior staffers called Legislative correspondents (“LCs”).

Known by many names—scheduler, executive assistant, or appointment/personal secretary—this individual’s job is to manage the Member’s schedule by allocating time between many Congressional responsibilities, reviewing and researching invitations, handling travel arrangements, and other crucial related tasks.

Last but not least, the caseworker focuses on resolving problems that arise with relation to federal agencies, such as passports, veteran’s benefits, social security, Medicare issues, and more.

Important Terminology

Mark your calendar: the fiscal year runs from October 1 through September 30. During this time, you’re going to hear a lot of the following terminology. Make sure you study these so you can be sure to bring your A-game!

There are two essential types of bills that you should know the difference between. First, an authorization bill provides the “authority” for a program to exist and sets its policy guidelines.

Once passed, the Senate or House Appropriations committees will entrust their subcommittees to include the program in one of the 12 regular annual appropriations bills that regulate federal yearly discretionary spending. The annual budget resolution document sets the overall funding limit for the 12 appropriations bills.

Next comes the two different types of spending. Discretionary spending includes defense and non-defense discretionary (“NDD”) spending, the latter of which has things like education, transportation, housing, national parks, etc. A government agency cannot spend more than the total dollar amount appropriated for a discretionary program within a fiscal year. Nondiscretionary spending, or mandatory spending, applies to programs authorized for spending, with the government allocating money as needed. Examples of mandatory spending programs include Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and payment on interest on federal debt.

The Congressional Budget Office analyzes every bill and provides a score that reflects its effective cost, essential for attracting cosponsors—a Senator or Representative who formally supports another member’s bill. Then, a Committee markup session determines whether a bill will advance to a vote by the full chamber.

About Samuel Dewey

Samuel Dewey is a successful lawyer and former Senior Counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee and Chief Investigator and Counsel to the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. Mr. Dewey specializes in: (1) white-collar investigations, compliance, and litigation; (2) regulatory compliance and litigation; and (3) complex public policy matters. Within these fields, Mr. Dewey is considered an expert in Congressional investigations and attendant matters. Mr. Dewey has a BA in Political Science, a JD from Harvard, and is admitted to practice law in Washington, D.C., and Maryland.


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