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The Mechanics
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Federal Government Wed Nov 05 2008

A Preview For Those On Their Way To DC

Hurray! Barack Obama has been elected the next president of the United States. You always knew it would happen - perhaps as far back as 2004 - because after all, you're from Chicago. And if you're a Chicagoan in politics, chances are you're already thinking about getting that nice gig in DC.

And boy there are a TON of cool jobs! Probably the first place to take a look is in the 2004 edition of the Plum Book. This guide to over 7,000 federal politically appointed positions includes everything from Secretary of the Treasury down to Inspector General of the Railroad Retirement Board. (Take note! The RRB is based in Chicago!)

With a few exceptions, most of these jobs are filled "at the pleasure of the President", which means they could be yours if you pull the right strings. They also come with great benefits, often times staff, and usually more responsibility and power than you can imagine. Even the lowest political appointees have the potential to affect hundreds of thousands of citizens with the smallest of actions!

So, now that we've got the hyperventilating out of the way, let's have a short preview of what you can expect if you do manage to get one of those Plum Book jobs.

1. "At the pleasure of the President" is a phrase you're going to hear a lot. Your power in DC will be in direct proportion to your relationship to President Obama and the people that immediately surround him. Meeting him at a 1998 Hyde Park fundraiser is way better than volunteering in his 2004 general U.S. Senate campaign. But everyone in DC is an expert bullshit detector. If President Obama and everyone else close to him won't remember you from that '98 event at the Medici, don't talk about it. It'll only make people ignore you, and that's worse than death in DC.

2. "So, who do you work for?" is another one you'll hear constantly. Prepare to hear it in bars, on the Metro, parties, funerals and anywhere you'll meet new people. Where you fall in the pecking order is of primary importance. You'll also discover from these conversations, nobody wants to talk about anything other than politics - hobbies are scarce in DC.

3. There is always someone more important than you. See also: Practically nobody knows who you are. With only a few exceptions, just about everyone in DC has to kiss up to someone (even the President kisses up to Congress now and then), so even though you've got a great new DC job, you'll quickly realize there are a thousand other people that have had extended profiles written about them in their hometown paper (or even the Washington Post) and really know a lot of people, including the President (see the end of #1).

4. The politics aren't as stable as in Chicago. While there are certain federal legislators that have been in office for decades, it's not the same as in Chicago, where the names Madigan, Daley and Burke have been at the center of things since...forever. That means that a powerful Special Assistant to the President (your meal ticket?) might be need to "spend more time with the family" after some poor decisions in late 2009. It's best to be friends with as many people as you can since you never know where you'll need your next allies.

5. Chicago-style politics is considered unseemly. This may change once Team Obama is running the White House, but Chicagoans tend to use a "like it or lump it" style and cut political deals like most Americans breathe. Swap tree trimming for a vote? They wouldn't dream of it in most parts of the U.S., and tend to be offended by how Chicagoans tend to cut to the chase. On the other hand, the lore of Chicago politics is admired and even feared by many in DC. You'll find that some people will step aside just because you hail from the "tough" South Side. Ooo! Chatham! Scary!

6. Permanent civil servants are often more competent than you and don't care what you think. Most political appointees are termed "Schedule C" federal employees. One civil servant friend once told me, "You may be Schedule C, but I be 'Schedule B'. I be here when you come, I be here when you leave." Their job is to execute the policy decisions you make, but they also have to clean up the messes you leave behind (see "Bush Administration") and they made a life out of civil service. These unsung heroes of government know more than you'll ever know about the machinery of government. They can either be your allies or roadblocks, and that's up to you.

7. People are always working. The military folks (even civilians) usually get to work around 4:30 am. Most of the attorney types work until 8:00 pm out of habit. You will regularly get urgent e-mail to your government-issued Blackberry, and if you are on the staff of a moderately important principal (Agency head, Cabinet Secretary, etc.) you should expect late night calls to your cell phone on Saturday night. It's exhilarating at first because you're doing Important Work For The Nation. But after about six months it becomes more exhausting.

8. Watch what you say. Some of the best DC advice I ever got was, "You never know if the guy on the Metro is some senator's son." Because everything you work on is probably sensitive to some degree, other people will want to know. Also, a public bitch session about your boss means you're potentially tearing down somebody's meal ticket. If the wrong guy hears about it, they will try to ruin you.

10. There are no decent Greek diners. This is a pet peeve of mine, but goes to the core of my biggest problem with our Capital: It really doesn't have much homegrown culture. Sure, there's the 9:30 Club, always present go-go music, great theater and all that. But if you're used to Chicago with weird, interesting and enlightening stuff happening around every corner, you'll be quickly yearning for Chicago culture after a year in the District.

11. Everything is expensive. You should expect to spend a lot when you go out in downtown Chicago. Around DC everything is expensive, everywhere. Houses, cars, taxes, booze, clothes, everything. DC lacks a true working class culture, so Chicago things we take for granted, like knocking back a cheap Okocim at the neighborhood bar rarely exists in DC.

For those of you who are not one of the first people to get a DC job, don't give up hope. Plenty of political appointees decide after a year that the Washington life is not for them - so you can still get called up to the show in 2010.

Now, don't forget to send us Chicagoans lots of federal goodies, once you get there!

 
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