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Top Staffer Conaton Preaches Togetherness

It isn’t often that Congressional committee staff directors garner national media attention.

They usually operate behind the scenes, ensuring the leadership is on-schedule and on-message at hearings and with pending legislation.

However, Erin Conaton, majority staff director for the House Armed Services Committee since 2006, found herself at the epicenter of a news storm more than two years ago after conservatives became enraged with a 15-page memorandum she penned.

Conaton had advised committee staffers to drop the usage of the George W. Bush administration designation “global war on terror” in the 2008 defense authorization bill. Instead, Conaton suggested her staff use specific language to identify each war — for instance, saying “the Iraq war” instead of “global war on terror” when appropriate.

The episode was quickly politicized, culminating with a Fox News story in which Republicans vilified her intentions.

“It’s no wonder Democrats don’t like the phrases ‘global war on terror’ — they have completely failed to take the threat of global terrorism seriously,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) fumed.

Ultimately, Conaton survived the furor. The issue did not go away completely, and the phrase was used a few times in the bill.

Many Republicans still opt to refer to the American involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the “global war on terror.”

But the new administration has since validated Conaton’s effort.

During his first 100 days, President Barack Obama replaced “global war on terror” with “overseas contingency operations.” Moreover, House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) has been advocating his colleagues drop the phrase as well.

“I think it’s a term that doesn’t serve us terribly well ... once you get a phrase people are used to using, it’s hard to break it,” Conaton explained.

From a spacious office on the first floor of the Rayburn House Office Building, Conaton manages Skelton’s Armed Services affairs. The majority staff director has become a champion of bipartisan sensibility in a committee packed with hard-core conservatives. Conaton, who was educated at Tufts and Georgetown universities, joined the Democratic staff in 2001 after a brief stint as a researcher for the Commission on National Security.

As staff director, she is involved with conceiving, drafting and passing the chairman’s legislation. And she has to do so while her immediate staff is charged with working with staffers across the aisle. Despite the new emphasis on closer oversight of administration policy, Conaton said Skelton’s commitment to bipartisanship motivates her staff of 67 to work together.

“I learn every day from working with the chairman; he has 30-plus years of working with the military. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t learn something from Ike Skelton,” she said. “Also, managing a staff of [nearly] 70 people — this is a capable and experienced group, a bipartisan group — to pass a major piece of legislation every year. Working through two wars, I feel great pride in doing service.”

Conaton has been focused for the early part of this year on legislation to reform the Pentagon’s acquisition process. Last week, the committee marked up the Weapons Acquisition System Reform Through Enhancing Technical Knowledge and Oversight Act.

Obama has called for the bill to be on his desk by Memorial Day, and Conaton believes that could happen.

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