by Matthew Green
There is a lot one could say about Barbara Boxer, the California senator who recently announced that she would not be running for reelection in 2016. She was one of a generation of non-native Californians who moved to the state in the 1960s and 1970s (including my parents), many of them – like her – achieving great success in politics, journalism, teaching, or other professions. Boxer’s election to the Senate in 1992 was part of an historic wave of women entering Congress that helped bring the institution a little closer to gender parity. There’s her history of leadership on environmental and women’s issues and her strong liberal leanings (as evidenced by her Poole and Rosenthal DW-NOMINATE score, which has always been among the top ten most liberal scores in the Senate). And her retirement creates an opportunity for scores of ambitious Democratic California politicians who have been salivating for an open Senate seat for decades.
But my own view of Boxer is colored by personal experience. In the fall of 1993, less than a year after graduating from college, I moved from northern California to Washington, D.C. and worked for several months as an unpaid intern in Boxer’s Senate office. I had never worked in a legislative body before – indeed, had never even been to the nation’s capital – and the experience was a deeply formative one.
Above all, interning for Senator Boxer taught me a number of things about how Congress actually works. Up to that point I knew relatively little about the institution besides what I had gleaned from introductory textbooks and Hedrick Smith’s excellent book The Power Game. Among the things I discovered that made a lasting impression, and that are as true today as they were two decades ago:
* Senators from large states have a substantial number of staffers. My recollection is that Boxer had somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 or 70 staffers, split between her D.C. and California offices. It took me some time just to get people’s names straight, let alone figure out who was responsible for what.
* One reason for the large number of staff is that constituents communicate a lot with their elected officials. Boxer’s D.C. office had at least two or three people whose sole job was to answer mail, and at least as many staffers responsible for answering the phones. Letters and phone calls came at a never-ending pace, and spiked in number whenever an issue got “hot.” (I recall some controversy at the time involving an illegal dog fur farm or something of that sort. Animal cruelty, I learned, really gets people’s dander up.) Boxer received so many letters every day that the New York Times wrote a story about it, which you can find here. (If you look carefully you’ll see a picture of a younger me, with bigger glasses and more hair, dutifully sorting mail.)
* Senators are super busy. From what I could gather, Boxer was constantly moving between committee meetings, conferences with constituents and lobbyists, media events, and the Senate floor. The intern coordinator once gamely tried to set up a photo op between the Senator and us interns outside her committee room, but Boxer was running late for a meeting and swept right past us. I didn’t take it personally; after all, we were just lowly interns, and by then I realized just how much work it takes to represent a state with what was then nearly 30 million residents. (Nonetheless, when she suddenly appeared in the mailroom to “help” us open mail while the Times photographer happened to be present, I had to stifle the urge to ask, “Who is this lady?”)
* Congressional offices would fail without interns. As lowly as it might sometimes feel to be an intern, I soon realized just how indispensible we interns were. Merely opening and sorting the mail alone could take several hours each morning, and all of us took turns answering the phones over the course of the day. Then there were other errands that we interns were tasked with, like delivering dear colleague letters and bringing important documents from one office to another. If we were fortunate enough (and we had the time to spare) we might get a chance to draft a constituent letter, research a bill or amendment, or help draft a press release.
* Relationships among lawmakers and across offices are incredibly important. I don’t recall that Boxer’s office and that of her fellow California senator, Dianne Feinstein, were particularly close, and of course the two senators have very different personalities. But everyone in both offices knew that close cooperation between Boxer, Feinstein, and their staff was vital to the success of all. It also seemed that the most effective aides in Boxer’s office were able to draw upon personal contacts they had with staffers in other offices (both Republican and Democrat, in the House and Senate). I began to understand just how critical personal relationships and skillful staff are for the successful operation of Congress.
The things I learned while interning in Boxer’s office began to pique my interest in Congress more broadly. It was the first step in a journey that took me from wanting to study international relations to becoming a professor of American politics, studying, writing about, and teaching courses on Congress.
Boxer’s forthcoming departure from the Senate has left me feeling nostalgic (not to mention more than a little old). But in provoking me to think back on my brief time in her office, it has reminded me that Congress is about a lot more than just roll call votes, floor speeches, and reelection margins. It’s about people: the individuals who are elected to it, those who work within it (paid or not), and the millions who are represented by it. And, thankfully, it is still a place where young people can come fresh out of college to learn about representative democracy and, in some tiny way, play a part in making it work.
Matthew Green is an associate professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His forthcoming book Underdog Politics explores the politics and power of the minority party in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is also the author of The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership (2010) and coauthor of Washington 101: An Introduction to the Nation’s Capital (2014).