Some weekend reflections on who Washington works for, from a former congressional staffer. 1/
During the Great Recession, I answered phones for a progressive Member of Congress representing a red district in Virginia. Our district had been hit really hard. In some areas unemployment was 20%.
We'd get calls every day from people who were desperate for help - they were underwater on their mortgages or on the verge of foreclosure, their unemployment was running out, they were sick and uninsured.
We had caseworkers, who'd connect with them to see if they could help, but in many cases there just wasn't anything we could do about a foreclosure or a health crisis. It was terrible.
The calls were heart-rending. The military widow who was losing her house next week. The family who'd been evicted and was spending what they had left to keep their grandpa, who was on oxygen, at a motel.
I used to hang up after some calls and wander the halls of Longworth in a daze, wondering how this world of marble and nice suits and lobbyist happy hours could be in the same country as the pain coming through our phone lines.
But there's one caller I am thinking about today. His name was Jim. Jim first called because of his mortgage- as best I remember, his business had failed and he was having trouble making payments. I sent him to one of our caseworkers, who determined there wasn't much we could do.
He called back to the main office and asked how he could speak to the Congressman, because he "knew we could help" and he "wasn't taking no for an answer."

I repeated what the caseworker had told me about his case, and said I was sorry.
But Jim was convinced, and would not be dissuaded, that there was some way we could help, if he just cracked the code.

A few weeks later, he called back. "I figured it out. I went to one of your boss' fundraisers. I gave $250. Now you'll help me, right? That's how this works."
22-year-old me was horrified, and immediately clarified that no, that was not how this worked, that our office provided all constituents with services regardless of political affiliation or support, that there was a firewall between the congressional office and the campaign.
I told him that while I did not have any contact with the campaign, I was confident they would not have wanted to accept money under those expectations and they'd surely return his money if he asked.

I got off the phone as quickly as possible and reported the call to my bosses.
The Tea Party & James O'Keefe were in full swing during this era and we regularly had callers record us, trying to trap us into putting a foot wrong. It could have been a sting.

But I didn't think it was. Jim felt confused and desperate and genuine.
Over the next few months, Jim would call every few weeks and we'd do the same dance, as he tried to find the secret to getting help. Did he need to give more money? Did he need to speak to someone higher up in our office? Should he be calling his Senators instead?
We'd end up chatting a while sometimes on these calls. He was a nice guy. I told him, again and again, the truth from where I sat: without legislation, there wasn't much more we as an individual office could do to help.

It was true, but it wasn't the whole truth.
What I found myself wanting to say was: "If you want help from Washington, you need to be a lot bigger and a lot richer. You join, or create, a trade association. You max out every year to everyone on the relevant subcommittee and everyone in your state's delegation."
"You hire lobbyists who used to work for key members or committees, who know your issue inside out. They'll host happy hours on the Hill with drinks and shrimp appetizers to "educate" staff on your issue. They'll track all the legislation that's moving. Sometimes they write it."
"You sponsor content in Politico and plaster the Capitol South metro stop with ads about how "the American people need" your preferred legislation. Your corporate PACs and your employees give $$$ to your favorite congressman. You've got the cell phones of their chiefs of staff."
"When the moment comes that you need something, you've already got that web of relationships. They know your issue inside out and they're eager to help."
Check out some of the details in this article. $41k to Republican members. And Dem Rep. @JoshGottheimer got $3.5k from the trade association and almost $100k from employees of the private equity firm that owns the nation's largest installment lender.
He's co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which was launched with support from No Labels, an org heavily funded by corporate interests and private equity.

The "Problem Solvers" are, unsurprisingly, very focused on solving the problems of rich people and corporations.
That's how you get what you need in D.C. That's what I couldn't say to Jim back in 2010.

Anyways, my boss lost the election that fall and Jim called to say he was sorry that we were losing our jobs and that was the last I heard from him. I hope things worked out. I doubt it.
Tens of millions of people are going to suffer unimaginably in the coming months and most of them won't have a trade association or a PAC or the phone number of a Chief of Staff. Watch which ones your representative is working for.
And, hey, if you've got a few bucks, chip in to @Arati4Congress, who's challenging Josh Gottheimer and running a people-powered, no-corporate-money campaign, supported by local Indivisible groups.

This doesn't change unless we put the kind of people who'll change it in office.
You can follow @Leahgreenb.
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