–by Joanna Hallac

In addition to my work here at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, I am also a graduate student at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, pursuing a Master’s in Legislative Affairs. This program has afforded me many wonderful opportunities thus far, including the chance to learn from long time Hill staffers (not to mention a Congressman, Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska, who co-taught one of my courses last spring).

I am continuously amazed at those House and Senate staffers whom I have met and learned from so far, as they really are the glue that holds Congress together. They work extremely long hours, often for incredibly low pay, and for the most part they are doing it because they believe in government service and know that the roles that they play, though generally unseen, are vital to the function of the legislative branch and our nation. They do the research, answer the correspondence from constituents, they run the errands, they write the speeches, and in many cases draft the legislation; without them Congress would cease to function (and it does function—sometimes better than others—but it does function, regardless of what is often portrayed).

Given the important role played by staff members at all levels in Congress, and given the fact that I have unique access to some of those staffers, I thought it would be interesting to interview one of them to discuss their job, how they ended up in DC, and how aware they are of the history of Congress as they go about their daily business.

Rodney Whitlock, the Director of Health Policy for Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), is currently one of my professors at GSPM (this is my second class with him), and he graciously agreed to be the first volunteer in what will hopefully be a series of such interviews I’d like to conduct with both staffers and members of Congress for our blog. He and I sat down on Friday, November 18th for a one-on-one chat, and I think you will find his answers both interesting and entertaining…enjoy!

JH: What is your name and title?
RW: Rodney Whitlock, Health Policy Director for Senator Chuck Grassley,
Adjunct faculty member in both George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, and in the Department of Health Policy in GW’s medical school.

JH: Where did you go to college (undergrad and graduate) and what did you earn your degrees in?
RW: Undergraduate was Roanoke College in Salem, VA and I was a Political Science and International Relations double major.

I got a Master’s in Political Science from Appalachian State University in Boone, NC and a PhD in Political Science from the University of Georgia…Go Dawgs.

JH: Were you always interested in working in DC and in government/politics? If not, what had you originally intended to do with your life and how did you end up here in DC?
RW: No, I didn’t plan on this path…I had planned on being in my 20th year on a faculty of a small college somewhere in America by now, but there were no jobs in that field at that point. It was during the first Bush (George H.W. Bush) recession and so faculty members who should have been retiring at that point didn’t, and so I volunteered on a congressional campaign; when he won, he asked me to come with him to DC, and I couldn’t figure out a good reason why not to go, so here I am.

My first job in DC was as this congressman’s (Charlie Norwood) assistant and was his go to on just about everything and then I moved over exclusively to health care. I eventually moved over to the Senate Finance Committee where I worked for Senator Grassley and then I moved here to his personal office.

JH: What is your favorite kind of history and favorite historical period?
RW: In thinking back to my undergraduate history courses, I always found World War Two history to be most interesting. Also, post-WWII America, which flows somewhat into what I’m teaching now. I had a professor of history in college who used baseball as a metaphor for post-WWII America and the changes it underwent. All the baseball teams in 1946 were located in the upper-right hand corner of our country…the St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Browns were as far west as teams were then. There weren’t any southern teams either. But as things kept developing across the western and southern parts of the country, more baseball teams sprang up too.

I always enjoy the use of metaphor and analogy as a teaching tool because it makes better sense in my head, as well.

JH: Yeah, when I was teaching I always tried to incorporate metaphors and anecdotes as often as I could because it helped my students make those connections too. Great…OK, next question. How conscious are you of the history of Congress in your job?
RW: Because this body is built on precedents and precedents are a part of history, you can’t possibly ignore it. That is something that on that level, none of us get very far away from the history, if you are defining it in those terms.

There’s a George Santayana quote that is a good way of putting it: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.” I’d like to think a lot of us here keep that in mind…because it’s what we do. Very little new goes on here…it’s all built off of what previously happened and if you don’t pay attention to that you’re going to make the same mistakes.

Since 1980, the Democrats have held the House, Senate, and White House (simultaneously) for only four of those nearly 32 years—two year stretches twice. I think that the two year limit they ran into were both under very similar circumstances. And I don’t think I’m being partisan with that, more like stating relative fact.

The other thing on the historical side that you can’t miss in this joint is that every member is in a line behind someone else who used to serve here before them. Every desk in the Senate was sat in by somebody else. This place…I described this to my brother’s in-laws in Canada. I described it by saying that I work at an active museum—this is both an office and museum all at the same time. You have to have serious blinders on not to realize that.

You guys (meaning USCHS) do a great job…I was wandering over to Rayburn one day to meet someone and they called to say they were going to be late, and so I started to wander the hallways of the Capitol more slowly and looking at some things along the way. There was a photo of a dirigible landing on the East Lawn. But the dome is still the same dome and the staircase is still the same staircase.

I’ve traveled to Japan and I was struck by the “oldness” of things there. There are places there where you have centuries of undisturbed history—not so much in America. But this, the Capitol, is one place here that you have that level of history. You don’t have that in most other places in this country. You have to actively try to ignore the history here to miss it.

JH: Now you have kind of already touched upon this next question with the answer you just gave, but how do you, for a lack of a better word, “interact” with history on a regular basis in your job?
RW: Inasmuch as you respect the history, you know the history, I think it’s something that helps you focus on what you do. You don’t want to be a tourist in your own job. You don’t want to be wrapped up in your own supposed self-importance that you lose touch with what you’re doing here. It really is something to see the paintings of Clay and Calhoun and La Follette…all the people that came before us. The focus is that just because you’re doing this, it doesn’t make you important. People have done this for decades even centuries before you, so just shut up and do your job. It helps you refocus on what you do which is important, I think, not who you are.

JH: Alright, so, what is your favorite story or anecdote about congressional history or a congressman that you’ve heard since coming to work on the Hill?
RW: OK, so it was the Patient’s Bill of Rights days, probably sometime in 2000, and we were sitting in the Speaker’s lobby getting ready to go into a meeting. I think there was a “day which will live in infamy” photo on the wall there that started a conversation. And so John Dingell pipes up that he was on the floor of the House for that speech by FDR and I was like “no way…holy cow.” It’s that kind of connection where you have this historical lion of the Congress and the most important event of the 20th century—the bombing of Pearl Harbor leading to our entry into WWII—and that connection is right there in from of you…it’s absolutely jaw-dropping.

JH: Wow, that’s awesome. We just gave Dingell and Inouye our Freedom Award last night [November 17th] and they both spoke–it was great. OK, what is your proudest moment working in government?
**Whitlock prefaced his answer by explaining that that is a word—proud or pride—that can make a lot of people on the Hill uncomfortable, simply because it is service and they’re not there to stand back and look at what they’ve done and feel self-important**

RW: For me, it’s every day. That if you believe that the job we do here is service, and you’re doing something to make the world better—and this can mean the world at-large or the world of an individual—that even though I may not succeed every day, but I at least come to work trying to achieve the goal of trying to make somebody’s world a better place.

A very specific moment that I’ll throw out…the day Norwood (Congressman Charlie Norwood, R-GA) passed away. I walked over to his office to join my former colleagues in mourning. And while I didn’t actually work for him anymore, there was somewhat of a chaotic situation there, I picked up a ringing phone and said, “This is Charlie Norwood’s office.” Just because I was part of something in his 12 years in office, it was just something…I think we, we had a lot of good times together. There was just some level of closure for me, having been there on day one, answering the phone, and then doing it there again an hour after he passed.

JH: I really like that story…thanks. OK, last one…if you were trying to inspire young high school and college students to come to work in government, what would you tell them? Especially since so much of the media coverage of Congress tends to focus on the negative and the hyper-partisanship rather than on anything positive, which could serve to turn some of them off from wanting to pursue such a career down the road.
RW: I do think there is, I mean, the core concept here is service. From the members to the folks answering the phones, we are all serving in a representative government. And no amount of barking and yelling that you will see and hear on CNN, FOX, or MSNBC makes this place any less of a representative government than it was during the 1st Congress. So, if you believe in service and you want to be involved in public policy, turn off the TV.

JH: (Laughing) Yes, I’m sure that would definitely help! Well, that’s it, thanks so much for doing this.

I really enjoyed getting a chance to sit down for a one-on-one interview with someone who has basically seen it all in his years on Capitol Hill. I was very intrigued as well as inspired by many of his answers; I found him to almost be reassuring at a time when it does become all too easy to only see what doesn’t work or what is wrong with the institution of Congress, rather than the good it does on a daily basis, exemplified by the work done by Rodney Whitlock and the tens of thousands of hard-working staffers just like him.

Hopefully, you have all enjoyed this exchange, and I hope you found it both entertaining and insightful. Congress is an institution, and as such it requires far more work and man power than just the 535 members of the House and the Senate in order to carry out its daily business, something that can be too easily forgotten these days.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on this interview and any other ideas you may have for future ones. Next week, we’ll be posting an interview with Congressman Adrian Smith (R-NE) as the second in this new series so be sure to keep an eye out for that.