Week 3: The One with Joey's Bag (of Snickers)

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Monday, June 20, 2022


Aidan Keaveney

Hi y’all! For this blog, I thought I would cover one of the tried and true responsibilities of the intern in any field: The Favor. There are certain chores that an intern may find exciting that a full-time or senior employee typically has to do so frequently that they inevitably lose their charm. My first introduction to this was as a research student at UNC Chapel Hill when I was 17; I got to refill the liquid nitrogen dewar, and the graduate students didn’t have to. Capitol Hill is no different. This week, I performed three notable favors that I was excited about that a legislative assistant or another staff member would find dull: delivering a snack trade, and attending and summarizing two policy briefings. 


A brief tangent about office hierarchy, before I forget to talk about this in another blog. Each office will of course be a little bit different, but most offices typically have a hierarchical structure that looks something like this. At the top, there’s the Member of Congress. Below him/her/them is the Chief of Staff, who manages basically everything. Below the Chief is typically a small collection of senior staff made up of some combination of Communications Director, Legislative Director, Senior Policy Advisor, Deputy Chief of Staff, District Coordinator, and other titles containing words like “Senior” or “Director”. In our office, we have a Communications Director and Legislative Director, as well as a District Coordinator who staffs the office in Aurora, IL. Below the Communications Director, there may be a speechwriter, social media coordinator, or something similar, depending on the office. We have a communications staffer who works in the district, but no other communications staffer in the DC office. Below the Legislative Director, there are Legislative Assistants, each of whom is responsible for a certain policy portfolio of issues. Below the LAs are the interns. So, I typically do favors for the LAs, or occasionally the LD, or very rarely the Communications Director or Chief of Staff. 


Anyway, back to my very exciting favors. Firstly, I ran a bag of Snickers and a box of Skittles to another office in exchange for several cans of AHA drinks and Mountain Dew. Our office always has a surplus of Snickers and Skittles, so we will often trade for other snacks or beverages that other offices have in surplus. The majority of staff in Congress are 20-somethings or 30-somethings who work long hours; we get the munchies.  


Okay, so the snack trade wasn’t too exciting, but the briefings very much were. The first was a briefing from the White House about the infant formula shortage. In case you don’t have babies or haven’t heard from every conservative media outlet (just kidding, most media outlets), a factory shutdown resulted in a shortage of infant formula across the United States. There are many issues that require significant explanation to convince someone of its importance; this is not one of those issues. Babies require food. Food was not available. That’s bad for babies. Which is bad. The briefing covered what caused the factory shutdown and the ongoing efforts to increase the supply of baby formula. First of all, the factory shut down because it did not meet FDA safety and sanitation standards, which seems important to me. So, what is the federal government doing about it? Turns out, a lot. By the end of this week, 13 million 8 oz servings of baby formula would be flown into the United States, with a priority placed on so-called “specialty” formula for infants with certain additional requirements for their formula. The first flights of formula will hit shelves by the end of this week. The federal government is also instructing other manufacturers who don’t typically produce infant formula how to do so safely to increase supply. The Department of Health and Human Services also invoked the Defense Production Act to prioritize shipment of infant formula over other products, while as much as possible avoiding exacerbating existing supply chain issues. Finally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to ensure that WIC participants (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) have access to infant formula by authorizing certain waivers for imported formula and exchange waivers for recalled formula. WIC participants are primarily mothers in marginalized communities with heightened need for infant formula. My takeaway was that, while obviously systems and procedures need to be evaluated to prevent future issues, there are thousands of very smart civil servants working very diligently to solve the problem in the short-term as efficiently and safely as possible, and they’re actually doing a pretty bang-up job all things considered. 


The other briefing I got to attend was from the Department of State regarding the conflict in Ukraine. The first half of the briefing was about the situation on the ground in Ukraine and the effect the war is having on global health and economics, while the second half focused on the impact the war is having on arms control. The short version of the first half is that things aren’t great. Both sides are suffering heavy losses, and it’s safe to expect the war will go on for a long time. The war is causing a rise in gas, diesel, and food prices, as well as a global wheat shortage likely to result in famine in Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia. The military conflict in Ukraine and famine in other parts of the world are likely to cause a double wave of refugees fleeing to Europe, which will lead to further global humanitarian and economic crisis. It’s also worth noting that in mid-2010s, the refugee crisis in Syria likely contributed to the rise or solidification of authoritarianism and conservative populism in states like Hungary, India, the Philippines, Brazil, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and of course, the United States. As for arms control efforts and nuclear non-proliferation, I will save the full discussion for a later blog, because I have the benefit of knowing that future-Aidan will be talking about nuclear non-proliferation for his final project. So, here’s the short version: Russia is using nuclear threats for state strategy, which is basically unprecedented. We don’t think Russia will actually use nuclear weapons, but the use of nuclear threats is problematic on its own towards arms control efforts around the world. The United States needs to lead by example by continuing to reducing our own nuclear stockpiles, and provide support to Ukraine to ensure Russia’s strategy of nuclear aggression is not rewarded. 


After those two briefings, I wrote memos about each of them summarizing their content and takeaways, and sent the memos to the appropriate Legislative Assistants who handle those policy issues, thus completing the traditional Favor. What will the LAs do with that information? Well, that depends. For the infant formula shortage, the information will likely go towards contacting constituents who reach out to us concerning the shortage, and to the Congressman as he makes decisions on how to vote on potential legislative action. For the Russia-Ukraine conflict, it will most likely be used to inform nuclear non-proliferation actions taken by the Congressman, since he is a leader on such issues. Finally, there is the simple reason that knowing things is good, not knowing things is bad. At least regarding issues of policy, that is. 


So, that was this week! If I someday become a policy staffer, I can imagine how these briefings might become fairly dull, but as an intern, I still think they’re pretty interesting. 


Aidan Keaveney