Hill Climbers: Witness to History

Posted April 16, 2010 at 3:14pm

Even though the final passage of health care just took place a month ago, the details are already becoming hazy. But talk to staffers on the House Budget Committee, and they’ll vividly recount a painfully detailed process.

[IMGCAP(1)]The panel first passed health care reconciliation on March 15 before its send-off to the Rules Committee. Marcus Stephens, the new deputy communications director for the Budget Committee’s Democratic staff, easily rattles off all the work required to advance that reconciliation vehicle.

But compared to normal budget markups, which can last from 10:30 a.m. to midnight, he said the 12-hour day wasn’t that bad.

The committee passage wasn’t the end of Stephens’ work, though. As the reconciliation bill queued up for House passage on March 21, the Budget Committee helped to manage floor debate. And Stephens was right in the thick of it.

“I always go down there to help manage time on the floor and got to stay down there for the entire time of the vote,” he said. “We were actually sitting up there at one of the tables at like the fourth row. … The most exciting part was when it actually did pass, when the vote actually got over the 216 threshold. … I saw people high-fiving next to me. People were hugging and patting each other on the back. It was really a great moment. … I didn’t high-five. I was like, ‘Do I do this? OK, I’m calm, I’m reserved.'”

Stephens, 25, now reflects on that time as a historic moment that he was able to be a part of. At the same time, he said was happy to enter the spring recess. Beyond getting a breather, Stephens was also promoted from communications assistant to deputy communications director during the recess.

His promotion marks his third job with the committee. Stephens worked as a staff assistant before his time as a communications assistant.

Stephens’ introduction to Washington came through an internship in the office of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). After saving up money while working at a call center for a year — which Stephens did immediately after graduating from the University of Texas in 2006 — the Henderson, Texas, native headed to the Capitol Hill in the fall of 2007. At the time, the would-be staffer cut his expenses by living in the basement of his third cousin’s home in Falls Church, Va.

[IMGCAP(2)]”It was fun and interesting because they had five kids all under the age of nine,” Stephens said. “I turned into a little baby sitter for the free room and board.”

In the second month of the Conyers internship, Stephens threw his hat in the ring for a job with the Budget Committee. And then he waited. Just four days before the end of his internship, Stephens at last heard back on the staff assistant opening.

“It wasn’t the typical answering-phones staff assistant,” Stephens said. “It was creating the charts and the graphs, which we love here on the committee. It was doing research and helping to run the hearings logistic-wise.”

After a year and a half introduction to the Budget Committee as a staff assistant, Stephens said he was ready for a change.

“I think after a year or so I thought, ‘What do I want to do now?'” Stephens said. “I had always been interested in communications and press. I asked them, ‘Can I be more of a communications assistant?’ … I had already started enhancing our online presence just by myself. I did the Facebook and the YouTube.”

Stephens received a leg up in jumping to the press side because of Chairman John Spratt’s (D-S.C.) lean communications operations: Previously, Spratt shared his only communications staffer between his personal office and the Budget Committee.

“They’ve only ever had one communications director, one press person on the committee,” Stephens said. “I tried to convince them that they could benefit from having two press people since the job of a communications person is expanding to not just regular press operations but online as well.”

In his new press duties, Stephens said he hopes to keep the ball rolling on the committee’s new media outreach.

“My big task I’m taking on right now is redesigning the Web page,” he said. “I don’t think it’s as good as it could be so I’m trying to put our new media videos and photos and our Facebook stream up front.”

Despite the committee’s embrace of new media, Stephens anticipates it will continue to shy away from for Capitol Hill’s new favorite tool. “My view is that if it’s not the Member Twittering, it’s probably not the best,” he said. “There are other ways to get word out on [Spratt]. I would love for him to Twitter, but he would never do that.”

Outside of work, the staffer socializes with his coworkers at Friday happy hours, gives Capitol Hill tours to visiting friends and is a member of the Lesbian and Gay Congressional Staffers Association.

In the long term, Stephens said he could see himself going to law school. “I’ve put that on hold because I love what I’m doing here on the committee,” he said. “I love being here on the Hill and want to explore the communications side of everything.”

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