Working the Ghost Town: Adventures in a Capitol on Recess

While the cat’s away, the aides will play. Twas oft remarked— albeit in a less equitable time than ours— that behind every great man, there is a great woman. In Sacramento, behind every great legislator, there is great legislative and caucus staff. Now this phrase is not exactly something that rolls merrily off the tongue (perhaps that’s why it has yet to catch on), but it is in great measure true. It's impossible for a senator to come to the Capitol with complete and total knowledge in every background, the ability to analyze every bill, anticipate every pitfall, recognize every opportunity, inform every paper, and know every thing that transpires within and outside the Capitol. Working for a time in but one arm of a sizeable senate caucus illuminates this fact tremendously. In a legislature that sees hundreds of bills flowing through it at a startling pace, each one more lengthy and baffling as the next, it is the sacred charge of the loyal staff and consultants to take a week’s multitude of indigestible legislation, divvy it up, boil it down, condense it into summary, target key language, and filter it all down into a perfectly bundled and consumable packet, placed delicately in front of a member in session, for him or her to peruse at will. Like a stately clock face, whose aesthetic and simple design is invisibly supported by dozens of constantly rotating gears, the finished product does not betray the work of the many that led to its production. And yet, they are always there.

An implication of this truth, however (as I soon found out), is that during the time when session is on recess, many of these working gears begin to slow, or even grind to a halt. For when an entire staff is devoted entirely to the maintenance of the legislature, what happens when there is no longer a legislature to maintain, when the mad and steady influx of potential legislation stops, and the members of both houses disperse to all ends of the globe?

Work yet remains for caucus staff, to be sure, but the environment is altogether changed. No longer are the mighty halls of the Capitol building host to swarms of suited professionals. Instead, it falls prey to migratory tourists snapping pictures and loitering in front of the Governor’s office blocking your way to lunch on K Street as they dawdle about the giant metal bear asking for pictures and saying “Wow!” and “Would you look at that!” and “Isn’t that something?"

And the “C” will tell… While I’ve certainly not been altogether idle during the recess, I have found more precious, precious time to explore the Capitol and its surroundings. Like the mighty Sea, the Capitol building is treacherous and not quick to divulge her many secrets. Secrets such as the small, unmarked room amid the ground floor exhibits where one could acquire discounted tickets to the State Fair upon request. There were no questions asked. There was the basement café, whose interior decoration has strangely remained caught in a stylistic limbo between a country home kitchen and a train station.

Or the presence of a Golden One ATM machine two stories down— the very first I’ve seen outside a designated Golden One location. Needless to say, I, like the many tourists, took the chance to appreciate the historic artwork and architecture of the building as well; even sampling, for once, the view of the senate floor from the gallery. Having sat, myself, many times down on the floor, it was a curious source of amusement up here, pretending to be an unassuming plebian.

Living the Vicarious Life. One aspect of my experience in the Cal-in-Sac program that has proven particularly enjoyable is the sheer camaraderie between Fellows. Each afternoon, having completed another day at work, we would regularly engage in swapping stories from the office. In addition to reminding us that everyone is facing the same challenges in what, for many, is their very first internship in government, this daily ritual produced more than its own share of entertaining and ridiculous stories. Discussing a recent drama that unfolded in committee, arguing about the merits of our respective members’ legislation, telling of the amusing absurdities of the workplace— this was veritable grown-up story time.

From a friend manning a reception desk, I was told of the almost daily occurrence of an enraged constituent demanding to speak with the president. From another, a nail-biting melodrama of their office’s unusually lengthy deliberation over which colors to use for the bars on a graph. A minor crisis once arose after dismayed citizens were offended by the order that various ethnicities were arranged on a published infographic. Once, a written piece was sent back for editing with the invaluable reminder: “Put some more numbers in there, the treasurer likes numbers.”

In Medias Res. It is perhaps a fitting dissymmetry that we arrived in Sacramento two months ago in the very midst of the budget madness— scrambling to get our bearings, coping with a new and hectic atmosphere— only to now, at the end of July, leave a sleepy and empty Capitol, catching its breath for the arrival of yet another marathon session. For many of us, arriving when we did, our yet unpolished skills were tried through fire; and just as we were perhaps about to take first steps, it’s time at last to leave.

Yet, even during this brief amount of time, being here at the center of the State of California, and one of the largest economies in the world, has proven to be an almost literal pressure cooker of experience. Through daily stresses, lessons and challenges, we’ve scratched the surface of the buried monolith of government. With many of its ins and outs and intricacies still a mystery, the most significant lesson of all has been learning that these intricacies are in fact there in the first place. From here on out, the task is merely to find and tackle them. State government seems no longer a nameless, faceless massive institution, but merely the massive sum of thousands of working parts. Now, the arguable effectiveness of having a bloated and massive government aside, over the course of these two months, it’s been a pleasure to discover and examine the parts.

Brendan Pinder is a UC Berkeley senior majoring in Political Science, and Classics. He is the former President of the Berkeley College Republicans, and is currently interning in the Senate Republican Caucus as a Cal in Sacramento Fellow.