State Department Cozies Up to the Hill

Posted January 3, 2003 at 3:30pm

Whoever still thinks size matters hasn’t stopped by B-330 in the Rayburn House Office Building lately.

The 225-square-foot space — carved from just 25 percent of the Veterans’ Affairs liaison office — has been home to the State Department’s fledgling Congressional liaison operation ever since the department first received approval for the initiative from Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in October 2001.

Over the past year, the internationally minded outfit — an idea of Secretary of State Colin Powell — has proved its mettle handling requests from 180 House offices and even 50 Senate offices, despite being charged with serving the House of Representatives, said Director Ed O’Donnell.

“We’ve gotten positive feedback from Members’ offices that it’s really helped them with constituent casework,” said Pete Jeffries, spokesman for Hastert.

“What the secretary is very much interested in and one of the reasons that the office is here is to narrow the gap and to sort of increase understanding between the two cultures,” said Woody Staeben, Congressional liaison officer and career member of the Foreign Service.

“I like to joke that I’m used to serving in foreign cultures and that’s what I’m doing up here,” he laughed, adding that the “one-stop shopping” the office offers is there to help staffers navigate the sometimes-daunting State Department bureaucracy.

In addition to providing information for Members and their staffs on constituent consular issues, the office helps facilitate the Congressional delegation travel process, coordinates the State Department’s Pearson Fellow program and handles a variety of general inquiries.

Along with more conventional requests, Staeben said, the office has assisted in resolving its share of peculiar Congressional constituent inquiries, ranging from questions over a military guard dog grave site in Vietnam to obtaining an export license for night goggles for a constituent who wanted to travel to Tazmania in search of a possibly extinct canine marsupial.

For those Congressional staffers charged with handling such constituent requests, the services provided by the office have enhanced their efficiency considerably.

“Instead of getting a response to a constituent inquiry within four weeks, sometimes I get it within a day or two days,” enthused Josee Duchesneau, an immigration and visa caseworker in the district office of Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.).

As the new Congress settles in this month, the office — which currently boasts only three staffers — hopes to expand its services by adding a staff member and improving its outreach services to any Members who may still be unaware of what they’re missing.

The 108th’s freshman class can expect to receive information packets — listing the office’s services and featuring resources such as State Department numbers and an official foreign travel guide for Members — sometime this month. (The rest of the House Members will also receive these packets.)

Noting that many new Members may lack familiarity dealing with even the most rudimentary logistics of international travel, O’Donnell said his office is there to assist in questions as basic as “How do you get a passport?”

Funded through the State Department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs, the office operated on a budget of just $250,000 during fiscal 2002, estimated Michael Polt, principal deputy assistant secretary for legislative affairs.

The liaison office, which is in the same corridor as those of the military services, has also improved communication with State’s military counterparts. Prior to opening up the Rayburn office, the relationship was “tentative at best,” said Lt. Col. Malcom Shorter of the Army Congressional liaison office.

“They were somewhere else and we were here, and sometimes our priorities weren’t necessarily the same,” Shorter said, noting that the closer physical proximity has smoothed communication.

While the department’s House office has handled many requests from the Senate side during its year of existence, opening an additional office to liaise with Members of the world’s most exclusive club remains a key goal in the 108th.

Last March, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) sent a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee urging them to allocate a space for such an office. Nearly 30 Senators signed the document.