To D.C. Hopefuls: What Your Poli Sci Prof May Not Have Taught You

College students looking for work in Washington, D.C. have many opportunities. These include internships, fellowships, and part-time and full-time jobs. But you must understand how things work in the Washington milieu.

The Washington milieu encapsulates the setting where political activities unfold. It comprises nine crucial entities: citizens, the president, Congress, regulators, courts, the bureaucracy, the press, lobbyists, and political parties. This milieu is intricately involved in transforming ideas into action through a three-stage process: analysis, translation, and implementation.

In the analysis stage, ideas undergo scrutiny and refinement through policy development and research, leading to the creation of proposed legislation and regulations. The translation stage involves the legislative process, policymaking, and court proceedings, where the various players articulate their perspectives, resulting in tangible outcomes like bills, policies, and official documents. Finally, in the implementation stage, the finalized legislation, regulations, court decisions, and policies are put into practice and assessed for effectiveness.

Beyond understanding the action process, it’s important to know the roles of the different players and branches. When you interview for a job, ask for a detailed job description. Additionally, seek information about the required qualifications, such as education, experience, and training, as well as the desired personal attributes, values, and attitudes. Understanding the feedback and evaluation processes will also help you gain a more complete picture of how your job in Washington will work.

A short description of the branches and players follows.

As citizens, we are more than taxpayers and consumers of government products and services. We are shareholders. U.S. citizens own the government. As owners, we are responsible for contributing to national objectives based on our basic American values—freedom, equality, honesty, and family security.  To fulfill our role, each of us as citizens must have a basic understanding of policy, actions, and decision-making in the Washington milieu. In the 21st century, the interplay of political, economic, and social psychological issues has made it vital that citizens take a “how can I help?” stance.

The executive branch comprises the President of the United States (POTUS), his cabinet, and a bureaucracy. The POTUS is the head of the federal government. The framers of the Constitution created the position with limited powers. They wanted a presidential office that would stay clear of parties and factions, enforce the laws passed by Congress, deal with foreign governments, and help states put down disorders. However, presidents have been extending the limits of executive power, aided and abetted by Congress and the courts.

Congress, the legislative branch of the U.S., is bicameral, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both chambers consider and approve appropriation and authorization bills, which must conform to the authority granted to Congress by the Constitution. Once bills are enacted, they are sent to the President for approval. If approved, they become law. If the President vetoes a bill, Congress can override the veto with a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate.

Federal regulations flow from Congressional bills that become laws.  Federal agencies turn these laws “into action through regulations.” The regulatory process is divided into three parts: formulating a new regulation, amending a current regulation, and repealing a current regulation.  Regulators have broad discretion to create rules.  Before regulations can go into effect, they must be “Noticed” (NPRM) in the Federal Register, where they are listed as proposed or final rules.

The Supreme Court, the highest court in the U.S., was established under Article III of the Constitution, authorizing Congress to establishing a system of lower courts.  Under Article III of the Constitution, authority of Supreme Court extends to all law and equity cases arising from the Constitution. Only a small number of cases “on appeal” are considered by the Supreme Court.

Today, the federal bureaucracy totals 2.7 million federal workers up from 1789 when there were 50 government employees.  Today, more than half work for the defense and veterans departments. In addition, nearly 2 million men and women are in military uniform.  Policy decisions are made jointly by federal, state, and local government bureaucracies working together to develop and maintain long-term program relationships.

At the birth of America, the press was largely defined by what was produced in the printing press. The 20th century saw a rise in the importance of broadcast journalism.  In the 21st century, the press is being redefined. Of particular importance today is online journalism.  The free press’s job is to gather information about misconduct, report world events and other notable incidences within and outside government, research topics, investigate, observe government, inform the public, encourage conversation and debate, and editorialize.

The term lobbying is often used in a negative way. Lobbying is trying to influence the actions of one or more persons.  Lobbying may be carried out through personal contact or by distributing information.  Lobbying and public opinion are sometimes confused. Lobbying involves direct contact with a decision-maker, whereas public opinion is an aggregation of attitudes or beliefs often reported in polls.  Lobbyists may seek to educate, advise, influence, or persuade.  In some cases, they provide a payment—a legal, political contribution, or sometimes an illegal benefit, with an expected result.

In the broadest sense, every time one person talks to another, it could be called lobbying. From the earliest days of our Republic, lobbying has been a part of the political scene. James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton lobbied for a new U.S. Constitution in their Federalist Papers. Over 1,000 lobbying organizations reside in Washington, where coalitions of business firms, unions, conservation organizations, and veterans’ groups often coordinate their activities on legislative and policy issues.

Parties provide policy input via a platform developed during a party convention that nominates a president and vice president. Parties are important during elections and fund-raising and may occasionally generate a specific policy option.

Washington’s milieu operates, for the most part, in a top-down fashion, where those in key government and private sector positions control outcomes, seeking to maximize their own benefit. All branches and players should ask, “What can we do to help each individual citizen and family achieve their American Dream?”

Good luck searching for an internship, fellowship, or part or full-time job!  Finally, take whatever job or internship is offered—even a short-term volunteer position—as many jobs in Washington, D.C., are acquired by those already working inside the milieu.

Photo by Sagittarius Pro — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 265746413


  • Harrison Fox

    Harrison Fox Ph.D. has practiced American Civics over 56 years as a US Congress professional staff member, professor National Defense University, founder of a firm serving over 100 financial institutions, as well as a civic activist in his neighborhoods, and founder of Citizens for Budget Reform and American Military Housing Services not for profits.

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