Cougars in the Capitol

By Kathryn Baer Newman

Among those climbing the Hill in Washington, D.C., is a small army of BYU alumni who work for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. In varied positions with many members of Congress, these graduates research issues, interact with government leaders, and write legislation that affects the lives of Americans.

BYU graduates have made their ascensions to Capitol Hill in ways as varied as the issues debated in Congress. Some got a start through internships, while others came seeking a career in politics and policy. Still others find themselves on the Hill because of their commitment to a specific member of Congress. Susan Wheeler, a 1984 graduate of BYU, left her job as an Idaho television reporter to work as press secretary to Rep. Mike Crapo, first on his campaign and then in his office. After five years she is Crapo’s chief of staff. “I have always worked for Mike. I don’t plan on working for any other members of Congress. When he’s done with politics, so am I.”

Keeping with the fast-paced nature of congressional politics, however, many staffers change jobs frequently, and with each election cycle, they face uncertainty about their future. Tiffany Turner, a 1994 BYU graduate, just landed a job with Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington. Her previous boss, 10-term Rep. Jerry Solomon of New York, is retiring at the end of the 105th Congress. “It will certainly be a transition, but one I’m excited about,” she said.

BYU alumni on the Hill fill many roles, some start-ing out answering phones and greeting office visitors. From drafting legislation to fielding media requests to managing calendars, staffers are involved in almost everything. And, just like those they work for, they often put in long hours, from early morning breakfasts to late-night vote counts.

“When I first started working on the Hill, I kept thinking at some point I would catch up on all the issues and items that landed on my desk. I would work from 6:30 a.m. to midnight or later,” Wheeler said. “There were nights I drove home from the office and noticed the lights were out on all the national monuments. I began to realize that other items in my life needed attention. I still work a lot, but generally the monument lights are still on when I head home.”

BYU alumni enjoy a healthy reputation on the Hill, and they find satisfaction in showcasing their beliefs and values. “Aside from legislation, my greatest accomplishment has been upholding the reputation that people from BYU have on the Hill. It is amazing how respected we are,” said Jason Rupp, a 1994 graduate who worked for three different members of Congress before leaving to pursue a graduate degree.

BYU interns and graduates are known for their integrity, said Bob King, a 1966 BYU graduate who has worked as chief of staff to Rep. Tom Lantos of California since 1983. “I have always enjoyed working with staffers who are BYU alumni over the years. I find they bring an attitude of idealism that is refreshing in my line of work,” said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.

BYU staffers work on complicated pieces of legislation that have significant impact on small towns, the entire nation, and the world. Rupp helped secure funding for residents of Arkansas to have better roads. On a national level, Turner has worked on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and welfare reform. In his capacity on the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, King interacts with diplomats from across the globe and raises awareness in Washington about religious persecution and other human rights abuses abroad.

Esmerelda Meraz Amos, a 1993 graduate, is chief clerk of the Senate’s Subcommittee of Government Management, Restructuring, and the District of Columbia. She said she enjoys her work because it affects Americans everywhere. “I see how the lives of people are impacted by the type of work being done on Capitol Hill. It gives me a great opportunity to do good.”

A 1994 BYU graduate, Kathryn Baer Newman worked for three years on Capitol Hill. She now works for the LDS Church’s International and Government Affairs Office in Washington, D.C.

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