LIFE AS A LEGISLATIVE EDITORIAL ASSISTANT

[The Indiana Statehouse, taken with a manipulated disposable camera.]

Now that you have an idea of what the atmosphere at my office is like, I'll tell you a bit more about what I actually do: I read bills.

To be more descriptive: I work as an editorial assistant in the Legislative Services Agency (LSA). LSA is a nonpartisan state agency that, in short, is responsible for bill drafting, research, Code revision, and fiscal analysis. LSA services the Indiana General Assembly, which is the legislative branch of the state of Indiana. LSA, in turn, is divided into three divisions: the Office of Bill Drafting and Research (which is responsible for legislative research and the writing of bills), the Office of Fiscal Management and Analysis (which publishes fiscal impact statements related to particular documents), and the Office of Code Revision ... my office.

The Office of Code Revision, or OCR, is considered the keeper of the Indiana Code. Every year, OCR reads each bill that the legislators and the drafters push through. This year, for instance, we read approximately 1,700 requests. The requests come from both representatives and senators, both Democrats and Republicans. We serve each legislator; so you could say that they are our bosses, all 150 of them.

In addition to editing drafts, OCR also examines printed bills. We check for accuracy, style, grammar, and consistency. We ensure that the Code has remained intact, and that even the smallest of changes--a misplaced comma, the un-capitalizing of a letter--does not go unchecked. We do this to every version of every document--be it an amendment, a motion, a resolution, an introduced bill. We read. We edit. We reread. We check.

Come spring, when the General Assembly has adjourned until the following session, we will update the Indiana Code to accommodate for new versions of laws.

During my first few weeks at the office, I was very intimidated. I was (and still am) the new one, the rookie, the one unfamiliar with how to read, what to read, how to compare, what to compare, when to compare, and what to read in what order. Each day, I learn something new.

"We use serial commas, unlike AP."

"It's legislative jargon. It's standard, you'll get used to it, don't worry."

"You need an emergency clause when..."

"Read around the stricken and the bold."

"Save here."

"Watch out for this."

"We have a no-laugh rule."

"That's okay."

"Good catch."

"Death before vagueness."

Weeks and a handful of checks later, I'm still learning. I'm still new. I'm okay with this; my co-workers tell me that it takes a year to adjust, and my boss, a wizened attorney, gives me many opportunities to learn. He appears on my right, peering around the wall of my cubicle, and hands me a document. "It's a short one," he says. "Would you mind looking at it?"  Though he and I both know that a particular task is a one-man job, he asks for my assistance so I can take part in OCR's dedication to Code preservation and accuracy. He--with the near-white mustache and gentle, jolly laugh--eagerly answers each of my concerns, shaking his head with a soft "no" each time I utter the words "stupid question."

"None of this is prenatal knowledge," he tells me, his patient eyes meeting mine. "It's good to ask questions. This is the type of thing we want you to question."

He bestows upon me new combinations of words: "This sounds inelegant," "Bad ideas draft hard."

I respect him; he is a patient and honest instructor, and there is a plethora of anecdotes to share and laugh about whenever I meet him in his office. "Have you ever read [this]?" "Have you ever seen [that]?" "Did I ever tell you about the time that ..." And, of course, with each question, I must stay and listen. For he is a storyteller himself, I find.

Despite my growing familiarity with co-workers, my relationship with work itself is still fresh. I have dozens of notes pinned to my cubicle, yet each document appears to keep secrets from me. There is much to remember, and sometimes my brain aches from having to recall regulations, or the particular order of new paragraphs. Before a draft receives a clean bill of health, I must check for loopholes, inconsistencies, and ambiguity. However, with reports and motions, I check detailed computer instructions. "Should it say, 'Page 22, line 17, after "merchant," delete "if the merchant".' and not...?" As soon as I find my footing with one type of document, we are handed stacks of another. And so I learn. Learn another process.

It's not boring.

The topics I read are very varied; I'll focus my attention on taxes (whose obscure language I struggle with), then switch to a document related to public safety. Or alcohol. Or higher education. Local government. The environment. Elections. There were days that we drowned under documents; the never-ending pile of to-be-reads ceased only after the New Year. Though things have quieted down since then, our work remains steady. I will not lie, though; some days are slower than others. In fact, congregating in a cubicle to watch a hawk sit in a tree was the highlight of one particular Thursday.

Overall, I greatly enjoy my work, though I never thought I would be so involved with legislation. However, this opportunity has given me a much better understanding of how state legislature works. I also have an appreciation for how bills are created, and how to read said bills (though bill structure varies from state to state). Working in a nonpartisan, confidential office has its benefits (smugness being one of them, admittedly), but it also presents challenges: your thoughts, emotions, and beliefs about public issues must remain (or become) private. Furthermore, there really are times when the best (and most entertaining) job description I can give is: "I fix typos I can't describe in documents I can't elaborate on. The documents are proposed by legislators I can't name and constructed by attorneys I can't disclose."

6 comments:

  1. Your job seems quite complicated and demanding, but I am glad you enjoy it!

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  2. "None of this is prenatal knowledge"
    I like that.

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  3. I have a severe problem of getting bored with my job...i don't think that would happen if I had your job!! Wow it seems like with all the individual types of bills that it's sort of like learning something new every time or at least more than the year quoted!

    This must be very interesting though!! I'm always curious what type of government and even local government stuff goes on that no one knows about! Best wishes in the learning process!! =)

    Ergo - Blog

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  4. Liking your job is a wonderful thing indeed...that's truly what matters.

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  5. My first "real" job out of college was as an editorial assistant, although really I functioned more as an assistant editor (word placement is oh-so-crucial in titles, often signifying nothing). It's good that you like your boss; I did not like mine, and thus I decided to end my career there 2 short years later. That was one of the most awkward 2 weeks of my life, because they really wanted me to stay, and I had to have many conversations over those 2 weeks where they tried to convince me. I had to repeatedly say no, it was time for me to move on, etc., without wanting to go into a lot of detail about why I was leaving. I was like, they did not prepare me for this in college! Haha.

    I hope you stay interested in and challenged by your work. :)

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  6. It sounds like you have a winner of a boss. Those are rare; count your blessings!

    The serial comma makes my heart flutter with delight. I briefly edited computer books in my 20s and that publisher used them, too. Secretly, had they not, I might have considered not accepting the job.

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