Just like members of Congress, expertise in foreign policy can boost staffers’ careers.
Most staffers are interested in it in some form. But until three years ago, the Foreign Affairs Congressional Staff Association didn’t exist.
“I had an idea and didn’t know if other people were going to be interested and it seemed to have taken off in a really great way,” said Aaron Allen, president and co-founder of the group and a senior legislative assistant for Rep. Juan C. Vargas. The California Democrat is the group’s congressional sponsor.
Sean Snyder, the association’s vice president and a legislative director for Republican Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, was also a founding member, though he calls Allen the “founding father.”
“It was very surprising to both of us that this didn’t exist already,” Synder said. “One of the biggest feedback items we’ve had from a lot of our members now is ‘Wow, I’m surprised I wasn’t already a member of this,’ or ‘This didn’t exist before three years ago.’”
The association is bipartisan, bicameral, has a little more than 150 dues-paying members and 1,500 people on its mailing list.
Its partnerships off Capitol Hill are particularly helpful to staffers.
“Our mission is to provide networking opportunities, briefings and other opportunities for Hill staffers to learn and grow as foreign policy professionals,” Allen said.
Varun Krovi, the group’s communications director and an acting legislative director for Michigan Democratic Rep. Brenda Lawrence, said the association provides “a direct channel of communication with people off the Hill.”
The group’s agenda includes networking opportunities with the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the World Bank, as well as professional development seminars on how to become a foreign service officer, how to join the United Nations, and diplomatic protocol 101.
“Just being in D.C. and the access that we have … [I’m surprised by] how willing all of the true experts in the field have been in the D.C. area and how accessible they have been with their schedules and their willingness to come up and talk to our membership,” Allen said.
There is a lot of ground to cover and the association tries to address as much as possible.
“We try, as a board, to diversify our events, both regionally and by topic,” said Michael Mansour, the group’s programming co-director and a legislative director for GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia.
He added that when the Iranian nuclear deal was being negotiated in 2015, the group gave it a thorough airing but tried not to have too many events on the issue at the expense of others.
“We also try and focus on emerging capabilities,” said Katharine Denby, programming co-director and a legislative assistant for Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado. “We had a cybersecurity 101. It was a good opportunity to help our membership understand where the U.S. is, how cybersecurity works, what the threats are, and just a general conversation so staffers are well-educated when they go in and try to work on cybersecurity issues.”
The association has members who don’t work in foreign policy, but of the board members, “all of us have foreign policy and/or national security policy in our portfolios, some of us more than others,” Mansour said.
For members, it’s “an opportunity to meet like-minded foreign policy professionals on the Hill and network and socialize and work on a great team,” said Francisco Bencosme, the group’s secretary and a legislative research assistant for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.