As a member of LAGO, I recently had the pleasure of helping to organize a Q&A on the Hill. This gave me the opportunity to return to where I worked before starting my masters and even to reconnect with my former supervisor, a senior staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Students got to hear from and field questions to three staffers working on Latin American issues on Capitol Hill. Besides my previous supervisor, a Republican, there were also two Democrats, one working in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and another who works in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The panelists explained that their role as congressional staffers is to provide oversight over the executive branch and formulate policy. In conducting foreign affairs, they described what they called a “healthy tension” between the White House and the Congress, with Congress often playing “bad cop” to the administration’s “good cop.” For example, the Secretary of State may urge a foreign government to make changes to avoid provoking the ire of Congress, which has the purse strings and is willing to cut military and financial assistance to send a message. The staffers said they enjoyed having this ability to influence U.S. policy, noting that this potential for influence can apply especially to Latin America, because the scant attention the region receives, compared to, say, the Middle East, often translates into a smaller “sandbox” in which foreign policy professionals like them can work in. This is good news for any of us who have found ourselves wondering if we can truly make an impact on issues affecting Latin America in a place like Congress. As a student focusing on Latin America, I was personally gratified to hear this, having noticed that the region gets short shrift in the world of foreign affairs. This was also encouraging on a more personal level because I’m originally Ecuador and still have family and friends there; if I’m going to work on issues affecting places like Ecuador, I want to see the fruit of my efforts be good for the people of the region.
The three panelists also offered advice, beginning with a clear exhortation to seek out substantive work experience, which they said is practically a requirement for landing a job after graduation.
“Internships, internships, internships,” one said, stating that there is simply no substitute for real-world experience, no matter how impressive your transcript or the name of the school on your diploma.
Their advice was often refreshingly specific, including recommendations to focus on a few large and highly influential countries (Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil), and to get a good understanding of trade issues, since, at least according to the Senate staffer, most foreign affairs professionals, not to mention most Americans, do not really understand U.S. trade relations with Latin America. (This was a helpful nudge for me in particular, for even though I’ve taken four economics classes at Georgetown, including international trade, I still feel that I have little understanding of regional trade and its impact on Latin America in particular.) Another word of advice for those looking for ways to break into the Hill was: Don’t start working for a Member of one party intending to eventually land in the office of a Member of the opposite party. Although foreign affairs is less colored by partisanship than many other issues, a staffer explained, working for a Democrat, or say, an organization like MoveOn.org, will mark you unfavorably in the eyes of a Republican, and vice versa if you work for a Republican or a place like The Heritage Foundation.
Even though I’ve worked on the Hill and on Latin American issues in particular, I was pleased to hear new insights, as well as some reaffirmations (get some field experience!), which I hope to apply as I continue studying and working on issues that affect the region. I certainly agreed with what the staffers said, and hope it was equally if not more helpful to my fellow Latin Americanists who joined me that day.
Javier is a second year student in the MA in Democracy and Governance. He graduated in 2012 from Georgetown, majoring in International Politics. After graduating, Javier worked in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs for a year and a half, focusing on Latin America. Originally from Ecuador, he came to the States when he was eight, first living in Miami and later in Maryland.