I Help Make Government Work

Savannah Lengsfelder - Berkeley, California
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, February 18, 2011
Savannah Lengsfelder

As a teen, Savannah Lengsfelder thought the stodgy old men she saw on C-SPAN had no connection to her life. But when she got a Capitol Hill job after college, she realized the importance they and all government workers play in making our democracy work.

Age Group: 18 - 30

I believe government is a verb: the collective effort of well-intentioned individuals.

In grade school, I was taught that government is a noun. My teachers drew neat charts with arrows depicting three co-equal branches that together enforce the rights and responsibilities of every American citizen.

Later, as a disillusioned teen, I saw the old men on C-SPAN as power-hungry aristocrats – the overbearing parents of a disobedient nation. Studying political science in college, game theory confirmed that policy is the calculated result of competing interests.

Despite my skepticism, however, I longed to be a tiny cog in the mysterious machine that churns out laws and scandals. I fought hard for the right to toil long hours for low pay in a cramped cubicle within ego-ridden marble buildings; but I didn’t plan to stay long. A quick insider’s view of the so-called “sausage factory” would be enough to dispel my childish idealism – or so I thought. More than two years later, each day I spend as a Congressional assistant gives me fresh appreciation for the people, process – and yes, even the politics – of the American government.

Elections bring out the best and worst of life in government. Political science theories spring to life as the partisan “aisle” widened and the motives of friends “on the other side” came under intense scrutiny. The outrage and enthusiasm of voters reflect American democracy at its finest, and the resulting shifts in political dynamics dissolve outdated protocols and make room for new voices and visions.  Government is not simple or easy, but nor is it a complex, conspiratorial charade. The branches are not equal, but a single individual – even one of 535 members of Congress – can make a difference.

Now that C-SPAN is a permanent fixture in my office – and I’ll admit, even at home – I am consistently impressed by the passion and eloquence of the diverse men and women elected to represent equally distinct communities. And behind every politician, there is a team of eager, well-educated, dedicated staffers who listen to constituents, research important issues, and work together to craft responsive, effective policy.

My job doesn’t come with many perks or much glory. I can barely pay my Capitol Hill rent, and the finished product of my efforts doesn’t have my name on it. But nothing feels better then when legislation I drafted becomes law, or my boss delivers a speech I wrote to a cheering crowd.

Few know who I am or understand what I do, but like thousands of other public servants around the country, I play a role in shaping the processes and products of the American political system.

I don’t work for the government; I help make government work.

After almost three years, Savannah Lengsfelder left her job as a Congressional assistant to return to her native state and attend the University of California, Berkeley School of Law (class of 2011). She hopes to return to Washington some day, perhaps as an elected representative.