Think the revelations of Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential with the first-person interviewing style of Studs Terkel. Only the subject covered is the United States Congress.
Paul Thacker, a former Senate staffer and investigative journalist, is currently gathering 100 interviews with mostly current House and Senate staffers, from interns to chiefs of staff, about what life is like on Capitol Hill.
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His goal: to inform Americans about what goes on inside one of America's most secretive—and most hated—institutions.
"Many staffers are treated like wallpaper," says Thacker, who worked as an investigator for Republican Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley in 2009. "But they have eyes and ears, and they see what's going on around them. It makes for very interesting stories."
Thacker, who has so far interviewed 50 staffers for the yet-untitled book, says the emerging picture is of an institution that is dysfunctional, chaotic, aggressive, and mostly run by young, underpaid staffers who or may not know what they're doing.
"One person told me working in the Senate is like going to a dinner and showing up expected to know which fork goes with which dish," he says. "Except that no one ever told them the rules."
In a number of interviews, Thacker says, staffers described the House members they worked for as "crazy" or "chaotic."
When Thacker asked one staffer why the approval rating of Congress was at an all-time low of 9 percent, the interviewee sadly replied that if the American public were surveyed on Hitler, even the hated Nazi leader would get an approval rating of 3 percent—that's how bad the staffer felt perception of Congress had become.
"If people are going to hate Congress, and if they want to despise our elected officials," says Thacker, "they might as well know how the place functions and what the people who work there think needs to be fixed."
In conversations about fixing Congress, Thacker says his interviewees have been prone to cursing, which he attributes to the "very aggressive, combative environment" of the Hill. "It's almost like you are in war," he says.
But like the many Americans who will never go to war but seek to understand it, Thacker hopes to help Americans understand how Congress functions.
Many people, Thacker says, have ripped down his contact information from an advertisement he posted calling for staffer interviewees to a bulletin board at the Rayburn congressional office building. But few have actually responded that way.
"It's a very secretive organization," he says. "They're thinking about it, but then not calling me."
Thacker is writing the book through a fellowship at Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, which is run by political activist and academic Lawrence Lessig. The book will be out as early as late 2013.
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