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Public Interest Paths: Non-Partisan Legislative Counsel

For this month’s public interest career spotlight I spoke with Kelly Pfundheller, non-partisan counsel for the Washington State House Committee on Local Government. I met Kelly when she came to give a presentation to my class on the bill creation process. She had the kind of bubbly enthusiasm about her work that I usually identify with people trying to convince me that World of Warcraft builds valuable life skills, or that I should come to their Society of Creative Anachronism meeting and learn how to joust. “Oh my goodness,” I thought, “this woman is a democratic processes nerd. That’s awesome!”

Kelly graduated from the University of Washington in 2010 without a job, and with the looming specter of the recession making her realize that maybe she would have to look outside her initial field of interest in order to find a job. She ended up in her current position rather fortuitously through the suggestion of a mentor who thought she would be a good fit for policy work.

“It’s all about who you know. That doesn’t mean that you have to force those experiences or force those personal relationships but you should seek them out and develop them and take care of them, just like you would any other friendship.”

At first, like most people, Kelly had only the most vague idea of what policy work meant. “[My mentor] said, “You should really consider going into policy.” I didn’t really understand what that meant, to be honest. What does that mean, being a lobbyist? I didn’t want to be a lobbyist.”

Why didn’t you want to be a lobbyist?

[Laughs.] Because before I didn’t really know what lobbyists did. Lobbyists have a really bad reputation. I would not think of lobbyists that way now.

What Non-Partisan Legislative Counsel Does

Like most people who work in the legislature, Kelly’s job is cyclical and varies greatly depending on whether the government is in session or not. In Washington State the Legislature meets odd-numbered years for 105 days, and in even-numbered years for 60 days. This is not guaranteed, however. There are also special sessions, which can be called by the governor or two-thirds of the Senate. During the last five years there have been several of these called in Washington due to our budget issues.

“It’s often very unpredictable. We don’t know if we are going to be in special session until the governor makes a proclamation. I could be thinking I am going to be on vacation, but then I have to go to work and I’m at work 14 hours a day.”

This makes the ever-important life/work balance for Kelly annual rather than daily. “During session I probably work an average of 60-70 hours a week, sometimes more. During interim I work 35 hours per week…About four months out of the year I sort of give up on my personal life and then the rest of the year I have a lot of time.”

While the legislature is in session, Kelly spends her day:

  • Answering her email, “Unfortunately email rules the day, and I hate that almost half of my exchanges are by email.”

 

  • Meeting with lobbyists and members of the House of Representatives, talking about their ideas and developing legislation. Later in the session the discussion centers more on amendments to bills and where they are in the approval process.

 

  • WRITING, WRITING, WRITING. “Maybe half of my day is spent writing…because there is not one specific area I work on…A member might come in and say, ‘I want to do something related to fire protection districts,’ and I have to go research that area, make phone calls, talk to people who work in that area, figure out what the practice is, and then draft and put something together for the member, and then go over it again.”

 

Every bill that is produced with the hope of one day becoming a statute leaves a mass of documents in its wake:

“Every bill that moves through the process of the state legislature also has a bill analysis and usually a bill report and those are only written by non-partisan staff. I write a summary of the bill that I am staffing. I may or may not have written the bill. Bills can be written by anybody, bills can be written by lobbyists or members, but I have to go through the bill and put together the relevant background and what that bill is actually doing. 

I basically put together a lot of documents targeted towards people who are not in the legal profession that have to be readable and comprehensible for non-attorneys. I do a lot of translating; I am an interpreter of the law. That is a lot harder than drafting a bill, I would say. How you put it together and how you convey it can be considered political, so there is this very high bar for objectivity. Something that is one page long and seems very simple—I can spend 10 hours on it just to make sure it is perfect and I am objective.”

Why Is This A Legal Position?

In short: Statutes are interpreted by courts. All the time. A person with a law degree has a specific skill set focused on clear and focused writing, in addition to a bent and twisty mind that can look at a simple, unassuming sentence and anticipate the havoc it could wreak in future interpretation.

An example of this: the “Doctrine of the Last Antecedent,” which states that qualifying words, phrases, or clauses apply to the words or phrase immediately preceding. For example, in the statement, "The commercial vehicular license shall not apply to boats, tractors, and trucks, with only four wheels and under three tons..." the qualifier "only four wheels and under three tons" applies only to trucks and not boats or tractors. The difficulties a misplaced phrase can cause are fascinating.

Benjamin Franklin had a “last antecedent joke”: “Before a man takes a wife, he should have a house and a fire to put her in.”

The point is that when creating the language of the law the unique perspectives and skills that a good lawyer offers are incredibly useful to the process. 

The Non-Partisan Nature of the Job

This was difficult for Kelly at first because she wasn’t quite sure what it meant. Is this a directive to be the cold-faced power-suit wearing lawyer in the office, maintaining neutrality by not making friends? Eventually, she came to realize that her objectivity was simply a part of how she communicated about the bills. When speaking to a representative, the important thing was to be able to convey that any feedback she provided was directed at the workability of the bill, not its political implications.

The separation of personal opinion from work product could be difficult; especially for public service-focused lawyers coming straight from law school where being opinionated sometimes seems mandatory. The important thing for lawyers drawn to this sort of work appears to be a focus not on the importance of the legislation, but on the importance of the process. For Kelly, this impacted her at a young age:

“I remember when I was six or seven years old I sang at the Capitol campus on Easter Sunday…I just remember being so in awe…when I went back as an adult and interviewed for the job I mentioned that during my interview, that I am still in awe of this place, that this is where laws are created. I think that means a lot, that I am participating in this form of democracy as we know it in the United States…change is slow and it is difficult, and that is certainly the case when it comes to our state laws but it’s a lot of fun.

This last session there was a change of political power in the Senate for the purposes of the budget... I remember watching the process and being really amazed because in other countries—countries I have lived in—there would be some kind of military coup d’état in order for power shifts to take place. Here we just follow the rules and parliamentary procedure and they call my office and ask for written documents and those written documents have a lot of power. I try not to lose sight of that. I’m proud of all my work.”

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