Hill Climbers: A Day in the Life of a House Staffer
Before the August recess, Roll Call tagged along for one day in a busy staffer’s life. We followed Keenan Austin, senior policy aide to Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.).
Like her boss, Austin doesn’t wear just one hat. “I have a hybrid role,” says Austin, who advises the Congresswoman on foreign policy, health care and education issues. Here’s how her day shaped up.
Austin is up, and the first thing she does is “check Twitter, email, message alerts to see what’s going on.”
“Not that I need to get up that early, but I’m a morning person.”
She jumps in her car and heads to the office from Northeast D.C.
Coffee is a necessity in her daily routine.
“I don’t think anyone wants to see me coffee-less,” Austin says. She grabs coffee from Cannon Carryout Café on the lower level of the Cannon House Office Building and then heads upstairs to Room 208, Wilson’s office.
Then, it’s shifting through email.
“I’ll admit. I’m an email hoarder. We get thousands of emails every day,” she says as she looks through her inbox with more than 2,600 messages. She keeps a crowded inbox to make sure she can refer back to messages or important points during conference calls throughout the day.
She starts with the “fire signs,” very important messages from the day before. “It [could be] something you just miss.” Her inbox has a couple of messages from the staffer’s “Dear Colleague system,” which alerts staffers to get the word out about a particular bill.
She starts the first draft of a letter to Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott, citing reasons to accept funding from the Medicaid expansion portion of the 2010 health care law.
Later in the day, the House plans to vote to repeal the law.
“I think that it’ll be more powerful as a delegation letter,” which says that she hopes they’ll have support from other Florida Democrats.
Austin shares her office with Wilson’s chief of staff, Tom McDaniels. On the wall to her right, there’s a copy of the House vote schedule, outlining the days Members are in session. Stacked upright on the floor are two district maps. The 17th district is colored in purple. “Miami Gardens is where our office is,” Austin says, noting that it’s also the district where the parents of slain teen Trayvon Martin live.
Preparing for Wilson’s radio appearance on WIOD-AM, a South Florida station, where she’ll take questions from constituents, Austin searches for articles relating to issue topics likely to come up and reviews talking points.
The call with WIOD ends.
Austin talks through work issues with her boss.
No time for lunch yet. “It’s easy to forget to eat when you’re in session. I live on coffee,” she says.
A meeting with the Congresswoman runs over.
Austin heads to the “Members only” elevator, which staffers take when Members aren’t on it, and to lunch at Cannon Carryout Café.
“I don’t see anything I like,” Austin says. At this hour, the pickings can get slim. So she heads over to Longworth Café.
Through Rayburn Hall, which connects Cannon to the Longworth House Office Building, she passes other Members, staffers and some visitors.
Austin calls Longworth Café “the zoo.” Floods of staffers are grabbing wrapped sandwiches and chips and ordering hot food all at the same time. The lines are so long that there are moments where you can’t tell who’s in what line.
Austin grabs the second to last tuna sandwich. But wait — she sees a fridge labeled “Express Wraps” and looks for her favorite sandwich. “[It’s] turkey with cheese, cranberry mustard — but that’s on white bread. Can’t do it,” says Austin, who searches unsuccessfully for one with wheat bread.
Back in the office, her meeting with the communications director scheduled for 1:30 p.m. gets pushed back.
She takes out her sandwich and takes a bite. C-SPAN is on in the background. “C-SPAN is ever-present,” she says. “If you have a bill on the floor, it’s always on.”
Then she checks her email, leaves the room and comes back with a stack of mail.
An aide opens the door to the main office and a group of constituents come in. “That happens a lot,” says Austin, who was expecting the group at 2 p.m. “They just show up early. I just take them whenever they come.”
She grabs a bite of her sandwich and takes a few personal messages to Wilson before looking for meeting space.
She takes her notepad and starts the meeting in the right wing of the office. (Wilson’s office is in the left wing.)
Four constituents with the Florida Health Care Association have come from different parts of the state to meet with their Representatives and Senators to ask for support in curbing fraudulent billing.
They describe their problems. Austin bores in for details.
The fraud going on — billing or coding for a procedure different from what the patient received, for example — has prompted increased audits in South Florida. While their facility is being audited, they do not receive Medicare reimbursements for the patients until the issue has been resolved. They’re meeting with Austin to seek Wilson’s help in drafting a letter to the auditors that will force them to give their facilities notice that an audit is taking place.
The meeting adjourns at 2:16 p.m., but it ends with a request: The visitors want “to see what hat she’s wearing today” and maybe get a photo. They get both.
Floor votes have started.
“Has she gone down yet [to vote]?” Austin asks an aide.
“Yes,” the aide says.
Austin sits down and the phone rings. It’s from Catalyst Miami, a group that needs help with donations. The second she hangs up, the phone rings again. “What do we need to discuss?” Austin asks. And the phone rings again during this call. “Tell Nicole I’m wrapping up with the district office. Tell her to hold.”
Minutes later she clicks over. “Nicole, hello. Hello?” At the same time, three reminders pop up on her computer screen.
Austin takes notes while on the phone with CARE, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to fighting global poverty. They are setting up a visit to Haiti. “I’ll be [Wilson’s] eyes and ears on that trip,” Austin says of her trip with the bipartisan staffers’ delegation.
The phone rings again.
She’s off the phone. “Need to take a breather and figure out what’s going on.” The phone rings again.
Austin and Eric Parker, director of communications for the Congresswoman, meet to discuss a plan for a television production with BET on Thursday to shoot a brief biography about Wilson’s life. They talk about what details to include.
“Let’s go in her office and check out the wall,” Austin says. The wall serves as a partial record of major events in Wilson’s career and life. There are pictures of her children and grandchildren on the wall.
Austin checks the letter to Gov. Scott off her list.
She checks her calendar. “I could go to that [Congressional Black Caucus foundation reception] at 6:30 p.m. or the CBC Institute, to their boot camp [at 7]. Hmm.”
Instead, Austin can’t shake a headache and decides to go home.
She leaves the office.
Her nap ends, and Austin’s off to a friend’s birthday party.
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