Decentralized Central Decision Making: the Structure of a Legislative Office

The leader/follower relations in the House of Representatives consist of complex motivations.  While Members of Congress lead their Washington and respective district offices, they are (more often than not) beholden to the dynamics of House Leadership, partisan messaging campaigns, committee assignments, and, naturally, the court of public opinion.  Specific to Congresswoman Rice’s Washington office, the Chief of Staff oversees the entire Washington legislative operations and supervises the constituent outreach in the district offices.  The legislative team contains its own hierarchy, consisting of a Legislative Director, Legislative Assistants, and a Legislative Correspondent (who handles constituent inquiries on legislative affairs).  The Staff Assistant manages the internal office processes and information flows (and the interns), while the rest of the office has separate functions, such as the Communications Director and the Congresswoman’s Scheduler.

While all decisions and vote outcomes are centralized and ultimately rest on the Congresswoman, her staffers, and particularly her legislative team, wield the most influence in the office for how the Congresswoman represents her constituents and what policies she supports. Congresswoman Rice consults her legislative team prior to every scheduled vote, time permitting, as a way to talk through the complex motives and consequences of bills or resolutions. During these consultations, the legislative staffer who handles the topic at issue will make a recommendation for how she should vote, based on holistic legislative research.  Each recommendation a staffer makes is grounded in the impact the vote would have on the district, the partisan influences and messaging campaigns, and most importantly, statistics from constituent opinions, which are facilitated by the interns who record all constituent calls and mail-ins.

From my previous experience in the office and this first week’s observations, I notice how Congresswoman Rice is influenced mostly by her Legislative Director, who pushes heavily for her to vote consistently across her district’s priorities and her previous record; yet, the Congresswoman is also influenced by her colleagues in office.  For instance, without naming the specifics, the legislative team panicked last week when the Congresswoman went ‘rogue,’ flipping her vote on a line item that she had previously cosponsored.  When the Congresswoman messaged the Legislative Director what her new decision was, the office went into a frenzy trying to piece together why she chose to contradict herself, until they speculated that she had spoken to another member of the New York delegation right before she got to the House Floor.  Their speculations ended up being correct, as I overheard the legislative staffers discussing how a fellow New York Congresswoman convinced her not to vote for the item, given that many New Yorkers may not be in favor of the item’s full consequences on national defense.

While the staffers handle different issue areas and can spend most of the day at their desk working on various projects, an important component to the success of Congresswoman Rice’s office is the high level of trust among every staffer.  From my observations, legislative offices seem to operate in a calm state of chaos, as there are always constituents to meet with, news stories to follow, opinions to gather, and statements to prepare, at any moment.  To keep the office running smoothly, staffers trust that their colleagues do not hesitate when they come across any information that aids research or the Congresswoman’s agenda, and that everyone constantly communicates.  Rather than wasting time, the office encourages asking questions and bouncing opinions off one another, which helps to avoid any situations that may reflect the Congresswoman in a negative light.  Through the high level of trust and congeniality in the environment, the office fosters a culture of respect and efficiency.  Essentially, the legislative office functions highly decentralized, yet through a central vein of influence on public policy: the Congresswoman’s vote.

Apart from the technical leader/follower dynamics, I have found myself observing leader/follower dynamics within my personal interactions for a few reasons, including that I have previous experience in the office compared to my fellow interns, and that I am the only female intern in the group.  In a later Theories in Action post, I hope to expand on this topic more, as there are gender dynamics and interesting legitimacy dynamics at play within the environment.

Overall, I have had a very pleasant experience my first week back returning back to Congresswoman Rice’s office, and I am thankful for how my prior experience allows me to expand my responsibilities and role within the office.