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Jim Jaffe Headshot

Who (Really) Runs Congress?

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Journalism providing more light than heat is less common than we'd like and positive stories are downright rare. That's why it's worth taking a look at a Washington Post profile of my onetime boss Janice Mays that meets both of these criteria.

I've long countered the seeming majority complaints about how Congress operates by suggesting that what's really surprising is how well it runs, given the ego, inflexibility and limited attention spans of many of our elected officials. It takes excellent staff to keep the trains running. Janice is a key member of that crew and she deserves recognition because she's doing a very important job very well. In her case, she's smoothly managed a key committee for more than a decade even as two powerful chairmen were forced to relinquish the gavel.

Things could have become mired or messy in both cases, but they didn't. There's a lesson there about the import of people behind the scenes and at least a hint that they have more impact on our lives than those we read about in the headlines. There's no doubt that Janice Mays has had a bigger impact on the way Americans live by the way she's influenced tax policy -- albeit at the administrative margins perhaps -- than Helen Thomas has, or perhaps even Sarah Palin.

So she's someone insiders find worth talking to or listening to and lobbyists frequently do both. She respects the role they play in the process, which isn't surprising inasmuch as more than a few of our former colleagues now lobby. "I actually believe that the lobby community serves a good purpose. I believe people have a right to petition their government," she told the Post's Mary Ann Akers in a statement that may give some goo-goos * heartburn, but makes sense to me.

That's partly because it provides useful intelligence to both sides, leaving her in a position where she warn lobbyists against trying an idea that seems improbably awful, educate legislators about challenges that are in the wind and transmute popular bad ideas into workable ones.

Those with an interest in understanding the legislative process, a small subset of those attempting to influence its product, should both appreciate Janice and her colleagues and get to know them a bit better. They're inevitably smart, loyal to their principals and principles alike and supple to enough to adopt to changing leadership styles as their environment changes.

Despite a lack of evidence, I suspect they tend not to be graduates of elite colleges. Janice is listed under the Soong sisters -- among famous graduates to Wesleyan College, the Macon, Ga., school that was the first to award degrees to women and continues the tradition of single-sex education.

We don't have access to her papers there to allow us to compare her performance with that of recent Supreme Court nominees who attended Princeton, but she's clearly proven already that she can play well in the big leagues.

That's something insiders have known for a long time. "Janice is one of the key players. She's in on virtually all the important decisions," a former colleague said in the Almanac of the Unelected that appeared in 1992. She's one of the few people profiled in that book still working on Capitol Hill. In the intervening years her power has deservedly grown while her public reputation, unfortunately for all concerned, has not.

* that's a dismissive characterization we devotees of the Chicago political organization use in referring to good government types who, to use the jargon of Congressional courtesy, we hold in minimal high regard.