The Senator’s Big Idea
Joe Biden was my new client because he’d called Joseph Hill Associates to ask about something called “federal revenue sharing” (FRS). Most people live long and happy lives without ever hearing that phrase, but, alas, not me. I was JHA’s resident expert on FRS.
Previously in this series: “The Law Works in Mysterious Ways: Joe Biden Saved Me from Pocatello, Part II”
Back during my first year of law school, when I’d initially joined the staff of JHA, the very first project I worked on involved an inquiry from the governor of New Jersey about federal revenue sharing. I did some research and wrote a 10-page backgrounder which I sent off to the governor, but I never heard any more from him.
But FRS was a hot issue and JHA was soon hearing from other governors and from people in Congress who wanted to understand what it was all about and whether they should support it. My 10-page backgrounder soon ballooned to 35 pages and I spent hours on the phone with politicians and their staffs briefing them on the subject.
FRS legislation became law while I was serving in the army. But when I eventually returned to law school and Joseph Hill Associates, revenue sharing was again a hot-button issue because the law needed to be reauthorized and a lot of opposition was building against it. My backgrounder ballooned again, this time to 77 pages, and, later, to 126 pages. That’s where matters stood when Joe Biden called JHA.
I returned the call to Biden’s office and spoke to a legislative aide I’ll call Caroline because I’ve forgotten her actual name. I sent Caroline my 126 pages on FRS and she and I had several more calls. Caroline then set up a “working group” of legislative aides from other Senate offices, plus staffers from a few House subcommittees, and all those people began bombarding me with questions and demanding more research.
My backgrounder ballooned again, this time to 157 pages, not counting 22 pages of endnotes. At that point I dug in my heels and refused to do any more work. If the staffers wanted more, they could hire a consulting firm that charged fees.
Later, Caroline asked me to come down to Washington to meet with her working group. Since JHA had no travel budget, I had to drive myself down — eight hours — and stay overnight with friends.
We met in a conference room in the Senate office building, which had just been renamed for former Senator Richard Russell, and talked about federal revenue sharing for hours, well into the early evening. Just as we were breaking up, Senator Biden himself strolled into the room. He looked astonishingly young, like he was my age, and his hair was longer than mine.
He was also jolly and personable and hugged all the women in the room, even though he’d never laid eyes on most of them. He picked up my 179-page backgrounder (counting endnotes) and said, “I’ll take this home and read it tonight.” Everyone cracked up. Joe looked at Caroline and said, “You’ll let me know whether I’m fer this or agin’ it, right?” Everyone laughed again.
As we walked down the hall toward the Senator’s office, Joe said to me, “You guys really work for free?” I nodded. “That’s crazy!” he said. “This is valuable stuff and you should be charging for it!”
I explained that working for free was ingrained in Joseph Hill Associates’ DNA and couldn’t be questioned. Biden laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. “Well,” he said, “that might be okay for Joseph Hill, but you should figure out a way to profit from all this work. How many hours did you spend on this?” I told him the time was measured in years, not hours.
“Well,” he said, “think about it. You could publish this somewhere and get famous. You could, let’s see, use it in your coursework at law school.” Joe reached over and took the backgrounder from Caroline’s arms, hefted it once or twice, and said, “You could go into the business of demolishing small buildings with this thing!”
On the long drive back up to Cambridge, I thought a lot about what Senator Biden had said. I decided I’d speak to my fellow editors at the Journal on Legislation about publishing a shortened version of the backgrounder. (I did in fact speak to them and they were delighted, though they wanted to see the shorter version before committing themselves.)
Around 3 a.m., I parked in front of my apartment in Cambridge and headed wearily up the stairs to my second floor digs. On the way up it occurred to me that if my backgrounder got published I should send a note of thanks to Senator Biden. After all, it had been his idea.
I dug around in my briefcase, found my diary and a pen, and opened the diary to the next day’s entry. I started to make a note about thanking Biden, but noticed there was already a reminder on that page. It read, “THIRD YEAR PAPER TOPIC DUE FRIDAY!!!”
My heart sank. Every student at the law school had to write a “third year paper” in order to graduate. In terms of its length, research depth, and contribution to the field, the paper fell somewhere between a master’s thesis and a PhD thesis. If you didn’t write at least 75 pages, you may as well not even turn it in.
I’d been wracking my brain for weeks trying to think of a topic I could write about but I’d come up with nothing. But then I slapped my forehead. Hadn’t Senator Biden suggested I should use my federal revenue sharing backgrounder in my law school work? Why not submit it as my third year paper?
I even knew exactly who my thesis advisor should be, and the very next day I called his secretary and made an appointment. Thanks to Senator Biden, I was on a roll.
Next in this series: “The Dramatic Conclusion: Joe Biden Saved Me from Pocatello, Part IV”