There may be no office inside the White House whose precise role is more difficult to define than that of Legislative Affairs.
Bryce Harlow, often called the "father" of the office since he started it in the Eisenhower administration, loftily said it existed for "building bridges across the yawning constitutional chasm" between the executive and legislative branches. But it was left to a Brit to come up with an earthier definition. When first lady Barbara Bush introduced Fred McClure to Prince Philip, she said he was in charge of congressional relations for her husband. Prince Philip paused, looked at McClure, and said, "Ah, the spear catcher."
It was but one of many times since Eisenhower's presidency that the office has been redefined. The reality is that the office's role has changed with every president. Sometimes the office carries the president's message to Congress; other times, it carries Congress's sentiments to the president. Sometimes it wields veto threats; other times, it dispenses favors to lawmakers.
Even today, for his second term, President Obama seems to be trying something a little different with a director little known on Capitol Hill but enjoying the president's full confidence. Officially, the White House states that the office "is responsible for advancing the president's legislative agenda on Capitol Hill," adding, "Every day, the Legislative Affairs team is on the front lines, working with senators, representatives, and their staffs to promote the president's priorities." Here are people at the heart of the office today:
Miguel E. Rodriguez
Assistant to the president and director of legislative affairs
Rodriguez does not fit the normal mold for people appointed to head this White House office. "The head of legislative affairs is usually someone fluent in the language and folkways of Congress," said Kenneth Collier, government professor at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas, who has studied the legislative affairs office. "I understand that the president wanted someone who didn't carry the baggage of past legislative battles."
And Rodriguez hasn't had much of a public role in the battles of the second term, preferring to stay out of sight and shunning publicity. Appointment of the 41-year-old Rodriguez is, in part, a reflection of the current White House belief that a traditional approach to Congress would not work in today's highly polarized climate.
Three months after taking the post, aides to top Republican leaders told The Washington Post they didn't know him. The son of a Chilean mother and a Colombian father, Rodriguez grew up in Montgomery County and worked there as a clerk in the Office of the Public Defender. He does have experience on Capitol Hill, having worked in the office of then-Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., before Corzine left to become governor. At that point, Rodriguez worked in the Senate office of Hillary Rodham Clinton, moving with her over to the State Department in 2009 as her legislative director.
There, he was a deputy assistant secretary working with the Senate and overseeing the confirmation of appointments. In October 2011, he moved to the White House legislative affairs shop that he now heads. In all of his jobs, friends describe his strength as an ability to get differing sides to forge consensus.
Deputy assistant to the president and Senate liaison
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was not happy to lose his chief of staff last year. Pagano had started in his office in 1993 and had run his operation since 2005, handling the overhaul of the patent system, the confirmation of Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, and the delivery of federal aid to Vermont after tropical storm Irene.
But Leahy was happy for Pagano and believed Obama had picked the right person to join his legislative affairs office as chief liaison to the Senate. "Ed is as exemplary and honest and modest a public servant as any I have known," Leahy said at the time.
At the White House, Pagano, 51, is credited with working smoothly with the Senate as the president starts his second term. "The White House would call Ed their power forward even if he wasn't 6 [feet] 8," says Sean Kennedy, who worked in the office in the first term. "He is a lumbering encyclopedia of what legislative plays have won and lost in the Senate during his tenure there and he can draw on a huge bank of goodwill with individual senators as he pushes the president's agenda."
Pagano actually once was a power forward, playing for the Catamounts of the University of Vermont before graduating in 1985. Then it was off to law school at Fordham University and a long relationship with Leahy. In addition to serving Leahy as chief of staff and senior counsel of the Judiciary Committee, he did a turn as Vermont field director for the Clinton-Gore campaign.
Even after switching to the executive branch, Pagano remains an admirer of the Senate, insisting it "can and should be the conscience of the nation."
Deputy assistant to the president and House liaison
It took only a few minutes for Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., to realize Samuels belonged in Washington. All she needed was a few minutes of conversation. He was a 22-year-old graduate of Michigan State University in 1997, and the two of them were walking together in a student protest march in their hometown of Evanstown, Ill.
"By the time we reached our destination, I knew that I had to have Jon on my team," she said years later.
Samuels, she said, was "a star. There wasn't anything he couldn't do in that first campaign, and there was no way I could go to Washington without him." Almost a decade later, he moved from her office to work for Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. Then he worked in Sen. Barack Obama's campaign as Southern regional director and joined the congressional affairs team in the new Obama White House.
Now, in the second term, at age 38, he is the president's chief contact with the House. "He is the quintessential straight shooter," says Sean Kennedy, who worked with him on the legislative team in the first term. "The White House realizes that this is a new era in Congress and you aren't going to get legislation through the way it used to work. Jon is the face of the new way things get done in Washington."
Samuels sounds a little like Bryce Harlow when he describes the job, saying: "My job is to build bipartisan bridges between the White House and the Congress to help advance President Obama's policy goals."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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