Joel Cohen loves “The West Wing” and “House of Cards,” but neither of those television shows portray life on Capitol Hill accurately, he says.
Cohen, 25, would know. He used to be a staffer for Sen. Ben Cardin (D – Md.). Now he is a legislative aide for the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. He also chairs the Congressional Jewish Staffers Association, along with Paige Schwartz, who works for Virginia’s Rep. Bobby Scott (D).
We caught up with Cohen at the Dirksen Senate Office Building to find out which television show gets life on Capitol Hill correct, and what being a staffer entails.
What were you doing in politics before coming to Capitol Hill?
I worked on a local political campaign [a 2010 joint campaign of several Democrats] up in Baltimore County. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in any job. We woke up every morning at 5 and campaigned all day. Two of my best friends to this day, I made on that campaign. It was an incredible experience and it really opened me up to a side of politics that I had never known.
What was that new side of politics?
I thought everything ran smooth and worked well up here [on Capitol Hill]. I was very naïve. Four years ago, the political landscape was totally different. Yes, we did have our issues. Yes, it was divisive, but nowhere near what it is today.
People like to look at television shows and see that [as how] politics works. If anybody is looking for what politics is really like, then “Veep” has got it really close. We’re extremely professional up on Capitol Hill, but there are times when you are running after your boss trying to give him the updated memo because what he has in his hand has been outdated because of current events.
What was it like working for Sen. Cardin?
I started off answering the phones, talking to constituents as well as writing letters for the senator. We would write messages of support or a thank you for being invited to an event. That was my first intensive political writing I did.
At the same time, I was driving the senator. He goes back to Baltimore every night. It’d be just me and him in the car driving down [to Washington]. He’d be doing a lot of work, and on the way back [to Baltimore] we’d sometimes listen to the Orioles game.
After about three or four months of doing that, I started working on health care policy for the senator. That involved meeting with constituent groups to discuss health care policy that are important to them as well as writing letters back to people. The majority of those letters involved the Affordable Care Act.
That is a long drive during rush hour. What did you talk about?
Since he knew I was from the Jewish community in Baltimore, we would talk about the Jewish community and what is going on there. He grew up in Baltimore City, and where he goes to synagogue [Pikesville] is where I went to high school, so it was nice to have that connection.
We rarely talked about politics. The majority of the time we would talk about the Ravens or the Orioles.
What does a staffer do day to day?
One of the biggest things is just making sure the senator is prepared. We had a hearing [recently] about the budget with the secretary of state. It was my job to make sure that [Cardin] had all the background information on the budget itself which had come out about a week and a half before from President Trump’s proposed budget.
[The senator needed] all of the information in that budget that affected foreign affairs as well as highlighting the issues that Sen. Cardin has been a leader on in the past to make sure he knew those budget numbers as well.
What do you do as the co-chair of the Congressional Jewish Staffers Association?
Our job is trying to help other Jews on the Hill network with each other. We set up Shabbat dinners, we set up a Passover seder this year. It is a way for people who might be very far away from home to have that connection back to their roots.
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